10 months into mergers, area churches are thriving

Published on Friday, 23 March 2018 20:44
Written by Erica Drzewiecki

Staff Writer

Churches across the region are drawing upon god’s grace as they transition into blended faith communities.

In the ten months since the Hartford Archdiocese’s pastoral planning went into full effect, parishes are breathing new life through mergers with others.Ministries are thriving and church attendance has risen. Clergy are busier than ever, moving between multiple facilities and serving many more families. For a religious institution experiencing a decline in active membership and priesthood vocations over the last several decades, that is nothing short of a godsend.

“The whole point was to make these parishes more vibrant for future generations,” archdiocese Director of Communications Maria Zone said. “People really are embracing the fact that they have new neighbors coming to share in the Masses and they’re rejuvenated by the attendance.”

In the last 50 years the number of practicing priests dropped over 65 percent. Meanwhile, the number of churches went up 13 percent. The Rev. James Shanley, vicar for pastoral planning, has guided clergy through a reallocation process he sees as vital to the Roman Catholic community’s future.

“Some parishes are stronger financially and some are still discerning whether or not to keep two campuses,” Shanley reported. “None are unsuccessful. Others are successful in varying degrees of cooperation through building, financial and staffing issues. It really depends on the overall opinion of the people, in how interested they are in making the change. A new name doesn’t make a new parish.”

In Bristol, St. Ann and St. Anthony Churches are adjusting to their transformation as St. Francis de Sales. This brought together two congregations, one largely French and the latter, Italian.

“Most of the people had known each other because they grew up in the same neighborhoods, worked in the same factories or shopped in the same places,” the Rev. Alphonso Fontana said. “What divided them before was ethnicity, but now they’re united by their faith in Jesus.”

The churches are a block away in the city’s west end. Parishioners are generally choosing where to attend Mass based on schedule rather than tradition.

“God is in all the churches,” former St. Ann member Stan Dubey said.

“The time judges where we go,” his wife Emily added. “The priest is the same, so what’s the difference?”

Joe and MaryAnn Czepiel were married in St. Anthony 50 years ago and are concerned about the building’s future.

“We don’t know if it’s going to leave us or stay,” MaryAnn said. “It’s a big transition to adjust to.”

Fontana is pleased to see parishioners worshiping together and making new friends.

“It’s God’s grace uniting people,” he said. “You can see the work of the Lord in this whole thing.”

All four weekend Masses are nearly full these days and the merger has only strengthened the churches’ ministries.

“People from St Ann’s go to St. Anthony’s pasta supper and people from St. Anthony’s go to St. Ann’s bingo,” Fontana said. “Our financial situation is solid.”

Like priests across the region, he is now performing double or triple the amount of funerals, weddings, first communions, confirmations and baptisms.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge to dispense more sacraments, but I’m enjoying it and doing just fine.”

In the merger of St. Ann and St. Mary’s churches in New Britain, the Rev. Israel Rivera of the newly named St. Joachim Parish sees more harmony with each new day.

“Beautiful things are happening,” he said. “The beginning was difficult, but people are grateful now.”

The two churches combined pastoral councils and finances on June 29, 2017. Not only did this bring more than 1,600 Catholic families together, it marked yet another union of cultures. St. Mary was largely Hispanic and St. Ann, Italian or otherwise English-speaking. Now parishioners celebrate Mass in St. Mary Church on Sundays, with staggering English and Spanish services. A single Saturday evening Mass is held at St. Ann Church a few blocks away.

“We feel that this is our home too,” Mike Castro said leaving St. Mary recently.

Castro joined St. Ann when he moved from Italy in 1971. He presided over the parish council for many years and is now vice president of St. Joachim’s council.

“It was tough in the beginning because you don’t want to lose what you had but instead of being separate churches we felt the community and the parishioners were more important.”

St. Ann’s popular Passion Play is set to premiere on Palm Sunday, with shows through Holy Week.

Egidio and Sofia Giannone of Farmington were first introduced to St. Mary’s in June. Now they go to both churches.

“I love it,” Sofia said. “St. Ann’s is our home but Father Israel makes St. Mary’s feel like our home, too.”

The same can be said for another blended family across the city – St. Jerome and St. Maurice.

“People are going back and forth between the two parishes; all the walls are being broken down between them,” Shanley said of the new St. Katharine Drexel.

Rev. Michael Casey of St. Francis of Assisi on Stanley Street in New Britain has an entirely different undertaking in the works. In February he was appointed chaplain of Central Connecticut State University and he is establishing a new campus ministry. At the same time, he serves as the archdiocese’s vocation director.

“The new mission is to reach out to all 11,000 students of the university to be of assistance to them,” Casey explained. “It’s very exciting.”

He expects to help young adults with discernment, or understanding God’s will for themselves. For some, that could mean pursuing consecration.

“God is the only one who can call you to service,” Casey said. “I let him and his love unveil his plan for their lives.”

The archdiocese has no more mergers planned and is counting on congregations and deaneries to take it from here.

“We want parish councils to feel empowered and make decisions for themselves,” Zone said. “They know best what’s going on in their communities to make decisions that sustain them in the future.”

Only time will tell if maintenance and upkeep of multiple facilities becomes a strain for parishes.

“Nobody from the archdiocese will tell them to close their buildings,” Shanley said. “Those decisions will only be made on the local level.”

Church staff are giving a facelift to St. Ann’s in New Britain, which is smaller than St. Mary and sees far less attendance at its single remaining Mass.

“We are working to keep it open as long as we can,” Rivera said. “We are painting the building, trying to keep spirits up and supporting ministries they had in the past. Hopefully by the glory of god it will stay open for a long time.”

Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or eschmitt@centralctcommunications.com.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol, Plainville, Plymouth, Southington Herald on Friday, 23 March 2018 20:44. Updated: Friday, 23 March 2018 20:46.