PORT WASHINGTON — The merging of parishes is a fact of life in the modern Western church, a trend symptomatic of shrinking congregation sizes, a diminishing population of priests and ever-increasing operating costs for parishes.
But it’s not always cause for despair. If handled correctly, said Mark Kemmeter, director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Office for Planning and Councils, the dissolution of two parishes and the creation of a new one doesn’t have to be experienced as a death, but rather can be celebrated as a marriage.
“Merging is the ultimate collaboration between parishes. You have collaborated to such an extent that now you have become one,” said Kemmeter. “Some people like that image of, you know, we dated and now we’re getting married.”
That appears to be the case for St. John XXIII Parish in Port Washington and Saukville, the incarnation of the former tri-parish cluster of St. Mary, St. Peter of Alcantara and Immaculate Conception parishes.
The formation of the parish, made official July 1, has been a long time coming, according to parish leadership. Prior to 2009, the three parishes comprised the Catholic Association of Port Washington and Saukville (CAPS), a non-governing advisory body, and officially “clustered” after the 2009 retirement of Fr. Karl Acker, pastor of Immaculate Conception.
“That was a really good half-step (toward the merger),” said Bill Henckle, trustee treasurer at St. John XXIII. Henckle had served for many years on the parish council at St. Mary and was part of the tri-parish visioning team that helped coordinate the merger.
The cluster relationship continued for six years with Fr. Tom Lijewski and Fr. Pat Wendt, former pastors of St. Mary and St. Peter, respectively, serving all three churches. But with Fr. Lijewski’s retirement scheduled for June 2015, the parishes knew another change would have to be made.
“We just thought, for efficiency, from the business side, that a merger made sense,” said Fr. Wendt, now pastor of St. John XXIII. “The parishes have been working together for years. We’ve been stronger for sharing our resources.”
Beginning the process
A merger can be a tricky process as it involves details of corporate and canon law. The process always begins with a formal request from the parish pastor himself to the archbishop, who will then consult with the Archdiocesan Council of Priests.
Once formal approval is given by the archbishop, the parish works with the Office for Planning and Councils to begin the work of dissolving the previous parishes and forming a new one. Other archdiocesan entities, including the chancery (which processes the necessary canonical and civil documents), the finance office, the Catholic schools office and human resource office, are also involved at various points throughout the process, which can take anywhere from six to 18 months.
In the eight years he has been at his post, Kemmeter said, he has seen an average of one merger per year. There is often the perception that mergers have been encouraged or even mandated by the archbishop, said Kemmeter, but that is “absolutely not” true.
“Parishes only should merge when they petition for it. The archbishop has made it very clear: he’s not mandating any mergers in the archdiocese,” he said.
Confronting anxieties head-on
Where mergers used to have a negative connotation, Kemmeter said, they can now be “very, very pleasant” experiences – if the lines of communication between the parishes involved are kept open.
“It’s not to say they’re not without their bumps in the road … there’s anxiety, there’s anger – but part of what we try to do in the process is to help parishes deal with that. You don’t sweep it aside; you deal with it, you talk it through,” he said.
Confronting the inevitable anxiety of the merger was always an important part of the merging journey at St. John XXIII, said Christine Flint, pastoral council chairperson. The parishes held listening sessions after weekend Masses and encouraged parishioners to share their “worries, wonders and wishes,” all of which were recorded and compiled into a Google document for the visioning committee to examine. The group then produced a monthly bulletin insert to address the issues.
“A lot of the worries were, what’s going to happen to my church? What’s going to happen to my money? Who’s going to make decisions? (Worries of) we’re going to lose our church, we’re going to lose our identity – that was the biggest thing,” recalled Flint, originally a parishioner of St. Peter.
That’s not surprising – two of the three churches involved in the merger, St. Mary and Immaculate Conception, have long and distinguished histories in the area stretching well over a century, and many of the parishioners’ families have been members for generations.
“There are long and deep roots, so that’s a hard change,” acknowledged Fr. Wendt.
But once a firm commitment was made by the visioning committee to retain all three churches as worship sites, said Henckle, some anxiety was alleviated.
“I was open to any and all possibilities, but I’m a lifetime St. Mary’s person, so to know that the church that I was baptized in is now likely to be around for the rest of my life, that was pretty reassuring,” he said. “Yes, the parish per se is no longer going to exist. But the building with which I so readily identify is still going to be there.”
“It was extremely important from the beginning to keep the three churches open and functioning and serving the communities,” said Flint.
Financial commitment made to ‘iconic’ building
In fact, the new parish has just made a significant commitment to the structure of St. Mary, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Earlier this year, the cluster raised more than $600,000 to replace the roof on the neo-gothic building, which retains the original roof from its construction in 1882. The fundraising campaign was so successful there will be additional repairs made to the church’s steeple.
One of the largest and earliest donations came from the St. Peter’s Men’s Club, said Henckle. It was a gesture he described as “a tremendous show of unity.”
Donations also came from members of the community, he said, many of whom were not even Catholic.
“(The renovation) is going to make the building sound for the next 100 years,” he said. “I think that was reassuring to the community because it is a pretty iconic building.”
The three churches will retain their individual names for clarity, but the process of renaming the parish itself was also an opportunity to promote a sense of community. Parishioners were invited to submit and vote online for their favorite names, and the top three candidates were submitted for the consideration of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, who made the final decision.
New positions created
One of the more challenging phases of the merger process was determining the personnel needs of the new parish, said Henckle. Last fall, he and 10 members from all three parishes worked to anticipate the organizational structure of St. John the XXIII from a human resources standpoint.
At the time, the tri-parish cluster staff was a mixed bag of employees who worked for all three parishes and those on the payroll of individual parishes.
Ultimately, all positions were formally eliminated as of June 30, though most of the staff was rehired into corresponding positions. The committee decided that directly beneath Fr. Wendt three “cabinet-level positions” would oversee parish operations: the school principal Kristine Klein, and two staff additions, parish administrator Deacon Mike Burch and director of liturgy and worship Tim Handle.
School now joined with parish
The merger actually signifies the union of more than the three parishes. It will also incorporate St. John XXIII Catholic School, formerly Port Catholic School.
The school, which has been its own corporate entity since 1989, was itself a consolidation of St. Mary and St. Peter parish schools. There are just under 200 students enrolled, said Klein.
She was hired last year as the Port Catholic principal, and knew at the time the school would be incorporated into the new parish.
“It’s an exciting time, but yet there are many emotions coming out of it,” Kline said.
Still, the students and school families are excited, she said, and “we’ve already seen a lot more collaboration between the school and the parish. School families are taking positions on the council; council members have joined the school board. It’s become a strong, diverse group of people just within the last month.”
The students will be able to see a lot more of Fr. Wendt as well, she said, since the hiring of Deacon Burch allows him to focus more on pastoral ministry.
“Fr. Pat is freed up more to step into classrooms, and the students are able to have a better relationship with their parish priest,” she said.
Looking to the future
The next step for St. John XXIII will be disposing of its excess property with the view of consolidating all operations onto the campus at St. Peter of Alcantara on North Wisconsin Street, just south of Exit 100 on I-43.
The current elementary school building, which had also served as the St. Mary Parish office, and the Immaculate Conception parish office are on the market, said Fr. Wendt, but there is no pending sale. A feasibility study is in the process of being approved and will help determine what additions or renovations will be required at the St. Peter site.
“We’re not in a big hurry,” said Fr. Wendt.
Rather, the parish is taking a moment right now to indulge in a wedding celebration of sorts – acknowledging the past while looking to the future. Throughout June, celebrations were held at each individual parish to mark the close of one chapter, and July brought similar post-Mass hospitality sessions to commemorate the new parish and to introduce new personnel.
In addition to the hiring of Handle and Deacon Burch, new faces include a pastoral associate, administrative assistant and maintenance supervisor. Senior priest Fr. Don Zerkel joins Fr. Wendt in celebrating the parish’s four Masses each weekend, spread throughout the three churches.
On Sunday, June 26 — the last Sunday before the official merging date — a time capsule was placed in the St. Joseph altar at Immaculate Conception Church. The capsule, which will be opened in 2033 to mark the church’s 175th anniversary, included a copy of that week’s Milwaukee Catholic Herald and news articles about the merger, Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family.
Fall brought more festivities. Archbishop Listecki visited the St. Peter site on Sept. 11 to celebrate the inaugural Mass of St. John XXIII Parish, and its first parish mission, “Growing As Saints Together,” will take place next month.
Though there are certainly feelings of “loss and grief,” said Fr. Wendt, “we are united in the mission as we move forward.”
That attitude, said Kemmeter, is the most integral part of the entire merger process.
“Very quickly people realize that we’re all about the same thing; the mission of Jesus is the same for our parish as it is for the other,” he said. “The key is people working together.”