It was a time of change and nervous uncertainty, an unsettling experience for many South Milwaukee Catholics who were comfortable practicing their faith at one of four different churches in town: St. Mary’s, St. John’s, St. Sylvester’s and St. Adalbert’s. The cause of all this uncertainty? Changing times and the decision by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to merge all four churches into one, known today as Divine Mercy. The year was 2003 and Fr. Bob Betz had already been serving as pastor for both St. Mary’s and St. John’s for two years.

“I was assigned to St. Mary’s and St. John’s and that was something new, one pastor serving two parishes 20 years ago,” Fr. Betz recalled. “We set up a Mass schedule for both communities and started to have the different ministries combined in one such as religious education, the liturgy council, etc. After a year, they said we don’t need two parish councils and they were already thinking about merging.

“As the other two parishes in town (St. Sylvester’s and St. Adalbert’s) kind of unfolded – one pastor retired and another was ready to work in collaboration – the four churches were incorporated as one parish, Divine Mercy, with the approval of the archbishop. That was in 2003 and it was rather difficult, like all mergers are, because religion is more about the heart than about the head. You can have all the reasons in the world for what you want to accomplish, very logical, but it’s what’s in the heart that matters. It should be because it’s about relationship with God and neighbor and how that’s lived out in the parish community. So it’s right that there should be a lot of emotion involved because it really means a lot to everybody.”

To be certain, there were many people who were not pleased at the prospect of being uprooted from churches to which they and their families had been accustomed for decades. Yet, in the midst of this unsettled period of time, Amanda Decker was a lady who sensed a strong, positive outcome. She had moved to Wisconsin from Mississippi and she was grateful to have a new Catholic church to attend.

“Being from Mississippi, Catholics are few and far between,” said Decker, who has been a parishioner for 11 years and has served as Divine Mercy’s director of religious education the past five. “So I was thankful when I came here to have a parish that was five minutes away. When I came here, there was a bit of unrest. People were nervous about the merger, coming from different parishes and wondering why they couldn’t go to their parishes anymore.

“My response was, ‘Well, gracious, you have a parish and at least we still have a church here.’ What I also noticed was that even though some people weren’t very excited about the merger, they didn’t let that get in the way of their faith, serving Jesus and coming to the Eucharist. That was something very attractive about staying here.”

As the merger process continued, Fr. Betz and the church leadership applied what he calls his “three rules about mergers.”

“First, if your leadership is not on the same page, don’t bother meeting. You’re wasting your time and it will be a disaster. Secondly, whatever you decide, decide about six months beforehand and then implement it in that period of time down the road. By then, they’ll have time to digest it and they’ll be much more accepting of it. And thirdly, communicate, communicate, communicate. Tell everybody what’s going on and keep them informed.”

The gathering space at Divine Mercy Parish in South Milwaukee. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

Today, Divine Mercy offers a strong, vibrant and very welcoming church community.

“In this community, the faith in Jesus is very strong and we’ve never lost sight of the pull to the Eucharist and having the presence of Jesus in South Milwaukee,” said Decker.

“There’s a really good energy here and it’s a very hospitable, very welcoming parish. In some parishes, you don’t always get that warm reception. I think with the merger everyone was new and every week you were always meeting somebody. That was very nice to me because I didn’t feel like a stranger.”

Fr. Betz agreed with Decker’s assessment, adding that Divine Mercy offers three important elements, the three ‘H’s’ that bring people back to a particular church: hymns, hospitality and homilies.

“If those things are relatively good experiences for people, they’ll be back. A bulletin or a flyer in the mail doesn’t do it but the experience does. If they experience something that moves them spiritually, they will want to come back.”

The first thing one notices when coming through the front entrance is the new gathering area that was part of additions made as a result of the merger. The gathering area is large, flexible, and has a beauty in its simplicity. And then comes the most important thing: the personal greeting upon entering the sanctuary.

“We have smiling, friendly greeters and an information desk so if there is a question we can answer it immediately,” said Fr. Betz. “The church has a beauty to it. It was built in the early 60s and more recently we updated the sanctuary area, where we put in our new beautiful baptismal font. It is through baptism that people can become part of the community. We have a certain laid back, friendly style in terms of our prayer and leadership. The liturgy, the songs we have, the prayer experience are hopefully uplifting.”

“This is a very prayerful community and we are very devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist,” added Decker. “I also think we live up to the namesake of Divine Mercy. Our hope is always that we are teaching our parish to be compassionate, love of neighbor and love of God in His church. We have Mass seven days a week and we also offer Eucharistic adoration, a very beautiful ministry we have once a week. We have a bible study that has been going strong for five years. They love to read God’s Word and pray together.”

As time has gone by, Divine Mercy Parish has also been able to realize many practical benefits that this kind of merger can provide.

“Another blessing with mergers is that what you can’t afford individually, you can collectively,” Fr. Betz explained. “You have the financial resources, the space and you have the volunteers. None of the four parishes would have a school by themselves. We have that ministry, a good religious education program, a 40-50 voice choir. All of those things would never have happened unless the merger took place.”

Serving in this parish has proven to be a labor of love for Decker, especially in view of the growing number of people who take advantage of the Christian educational opportunities available.

“We have a vibrant Christian Formation Program and our families pray because they feel nourished,” smiles Decker. “It’s the same with our nice school community and we’re having more school choice families. That’s been a real blessing for us because they don’t have a church family and their children are receiving the sacraments as a result of that. If you come to Divine Mercy, you are going to receive Jesus at this parish.”