Catherine W. Idzerda" />

State's parishes plan for possible consolidation

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Step one: Pray for vocations.

Step two: Plan for the future.

Members of Madison Catholic Diocese are doing both in earnest and here’s why: Unless vocations increase dramatically, the 133-parish dioceses will have as few as 53 priests in 2015.

The diocese is prepared. In summer of 2006, Bishop Robert Murlino started “Guided by the Spirit,” a process that challenged parishes to create hopeful—and realistic—plans for their own futures.

What will it mean for local parishes?

It’s complicated.

Reassure then inform

Individual “Guided by the Spirit” recommendations, taken out of context, are bound to set off alarm bells in the pews.

That’s why Grant Emmel, vice-chancellor of the diocese, spends a lot of time with generalities before getting to specifics.

“This is the critical point to make: Certain things have to occur before this plan gets put into place,” Emmel said.

In other words, not all of the recommendations are going to happen today, tomorrow or next week. If the number of vocations increases, then no recommendations will be needed.

In 2007, the diocese had 24 seminarians, and vocations have been on a gentle increase since the 1990s.

Inform then empower

From the beginning, Bishop Murlino wanted the people in the pews to be involved in the planning.

“People had to take some ownership of the process, and they really drove what happened,” Emmel said.

In 2005, parishes surveyed members about their habits and preferences.

In 2006, parishes were formed into “clusters” based on their locations.

The Janesville-Milton cluster includes St. Mary, Milton, and the Nativity of Mary, St. Patrick, St. John Vianney and St. William, all of Janesville.

Representatives from each church completed self-assessments of their own strengths and weaknesses, explained Jeanne Vogt of St. John Vianney. Then, they joined other churches in their cluster to consider their future together.

Despite having so much at stake, the meetings were surprisingly cordial.

“To be honest, I expected people to be more territorial,” said Maria Oinos of St. Patrick’s parish. “I was amazed at how receptive people were.”

Together, members of each cluster looked at their options for the future.

In October, Murlino and the diocesan leadership approved them with only minor changes.

Meet then recommend

The recommendations for the Janesville-Milton cluster include:

-- Entering into a partnership cluster until one less priest is available to serve.

“A partnership parish means we’ll partner on more things; we’ll do more joint programs together,” explained Vogt, a lifelong Catholic. “It doesn’t mean that all five parishes will always be doing something together, it might just be two or three parishes.”

A partnership relationship works especially well for social justice ministries.

“That’s an area where it’s easy to see how we can benefit from working together,” Vogt said. “How can there not be strength in numbers?”

As the number of priests declines, the parish leadership would meet regularly to build “on their existing relationships in prayer and worship and collaborations with their neighbors.”

Might two churches merge? Perhaps, or maybe priests and parishioners might find a way to keep all the worship sites in the cluster.

-- Considering a leadership team model. Five priests assigned to five parishes in the cluster would serve as a team and administer to all the parishes as a group.

The leadership team model helps “de-couple” priests from parishes. It’s a way to ease the transition from five priests for five parishes, to four or three priests to five parishes.

Elements of the leadership team model are already in place.

For example, weekday Masses are held at different churches every day; schedules are coordinated between the parishes.

-- Considering a parish administrator model. As the number of priests decline, each parish would identify an administrator who would be responsible for everyday church operations, leaving the priest free to do pastoral work.

“We want the priests to do the most important jobs,” Vogt said.

-- Asking parishes to pray and “do all they can” to increase vocations to ordained and consecrated life and lay ministry.

-- Finally, considering the needs of the local Catholic schools. In May, the wording read “explore the feasibility of less than four Catholic schools serving the cluster in the future.” The final wording, in October, said, “explore ways to strengthen and revitalize Catholic education in Janesville.”

Emmel said the diocese is planning to do a school study in the upcoming year.

Recommend then wait

What does it all mean? Will churches be merged with each other? Will schools be closed?

“Maybe” is the only honest answer.

“The entire diocese is effected by this,” Oinos said. “There are parishes (elsewhere) which will be consumed by other parishes; some will be closed. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”

For example, St. John the Baptist and St. Lawrence, both of Jefferson, are slated to be merged within one to two years, according to the final “Guided by the Spirit” document.

St. Rose of Lima, Brodhead, is slated to be merged with St. Victor, Monroe, too, if the number of priests declines.

In southwestern Wisconsin, there are two cases in which three parishes will be merged into single entities.

The last regional meeting was especially difficult for the members of clusters who were facing mergers.

“They took it like champs, but you could hear the quiver in their voice,” Vogt said. “There’s some pain out there.”

Oinos echoed her thoughts.

“Are all the parishes getting exactly what they want?” Oinos said. “No, I wish I could say that they were.”

Oinos grew up in St. Patrick’s parish and even served as a fill-in administrator at the school while a principal was being hired. She’s aware that her church and school might be vulnerable.

“No one wants to see a school or a church disappear,” Oinos said. “For a town of this size to have four Catholic schools is amazing. And they’re very, very good schools.”

If there is a merger, what will happen to the buildings?

“When you have two communities with buildings that they can afford to keep open, why not let them keep them open?” Emmel said.

Those buildings might again become parish homes.

Emmel and other diocesan leaders understand the churches themselves are more than just buildings—they represent history, family and faith.

Oinos understands that, too.

“We all hold on to the real estate,” Oinos said. “It’s a part of who we are; we remember the relationships we’ve built there. Our heartstrings are very much tied to our parishes.”

Diocese by the numbers

In 1960, the Madison diocese had:

-- 149,000 Catholics.

-- 137 parishes.

-- 181 diocesan priests and another 62 religious order priests who sometimes served on a part time basis.

The numbers added up to an average of 1.32 priest per parish or 832 Catholics per priest.

In 2007, the diocese has:

-- 270,000 Catholics.

-- 133 active parishes.

-- 91 active diocesan priests.

Now, the diocese has 1.5 parishes per priest and 2,967 Catholics per priest.

The 11 counties making up the Madison Diocese include: Rock, Jefferson, Green, Dane, Iowa, Grant, Lafayette, Sauk, Columbia, Green Lake and Marquette counties.

The diocese currently has:

-- 141 priests—not all of them are active in parish ministry.

-- 20 priests in religious orders.

-- 7 religious brothers.

-- 390 religious sisters.

-- 24 deacons.

-- 24 seminarians.

Source: Madison Catholic Diocese

Last updated: 9:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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