Parish Merger Focus of Forum

By Betsy Calvert
The Republican [Springfield MA]
September 8, 2005

GREENFIELD - About 50 Roman Catholics from three area churches slated for closure gathered yesterday for peaceful contemplation and to recite the rosary.

But today, parishioners unhappy with the planned merger will have a chance to speak out.

The Rev. Stanley J. Aksamit, pastor of the three churches in Montague and Greenfield, will be on hand at Sacred Heart Church on Deerfield Street tonight at 6:30 to answer questions about the cost-saving proposal by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

The Rev. John J. Bonzagni in Springfield said this week that Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell has assured parishioners that no decision will be made on the merger until Sacred Heart parishioners have a chance to speak. Bonzagni is heading the diocese's efforts to consolidate in the face of a future with fewer priests and parishioners.

"The bishop told me that it will not be put on the Presbyteral Council's agenda until all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed," he said. "In other words, until all people have a chance to have their say."

Aksamit announced last month that parish pastoral planning committees for Sacred Heart and St. Ann's and St. Mary's churches in Montague had written to the bishop recommending that he close the three parishes and create a new one, which would use the St. Mary's building. The three parishes have been yoked for 12 years.

Many parishioners were angry at the announcement. Those at Sacred Heart, the smallest of the churches, felt left out of the decision-making.

Aksamit said yesterday outside the prayer vigil that some people are going through now-classic stages of grief at the thought of losing their parish church. It starts with anger, goes through denial and bargaining, and then possibly acceptance, he said.

Two women from Montague organized yesterday's mobile prayer vigil to help bring the community together. They were Eileen Mariani and Amy Connelly.

Barbara Bodenstein of St. Mary's explained the purpose of the vigil.

"We're praying for unity with all of our churches, that all of our people will join as a community," she said. "We've come to realize through (Aksamit's) leadership that the church is not in the building, but in the community."

Aksamit acknowledged yesterday that the timing of the decision is bad, with the Catholic Church nationally exposed in the scandal of pedophile priests. Still, he said, the reasons for the proposed merger do not relate to the church having to pay enormous sums in civil lawsuits to victims of alleged sexual abuse.

That money, by church law, cannot come from the parishes, he said.

Aksamit explained how the vigil recitations were organized, with the three sets of Mysteries in the Rosary to be said, one at each church, last night. The group recited the five Joyful mysteries in the parking lot behind Sacred Heart, before the statue of St. Ann and Mary, her daughter.

The participants then drove to St. Ann's Church to recite the Sorrowful mysteries on the nearby rocky hill, on top of which stands a 50-year-old statue of the Blessed Mother. Finally, they recited the five Glorious mysteries at St. Mary's Church.

Altogether, the group of mostly women recited 150 Hail Marys.

"It's kind of like a mantra for meditation," Aksamit said. "It helps you to slow down and focus your attention. What I would hope from this is if people could focus on the issues rather than aiming at persons."