Reconfiguration Brings Change, Challenge, Hope

By D.A. Barsotti
Catholic Star Herald

July 24 2008

Merging parishes requires time and work and, as Bishop Joseph A. Galante acknowledged in announcing plans for the reconfiguration of the Diocese of Camden, it also requires sacrifice and a willingness to work for the greater good.

"Shortly after the bishop announced the reconfigurations, we held a grief-sharing night," said Father William C. Pierce, pastor of St. John Bosco Parish, Millville. "With help from diocesan facilitators, participants were given the opportunity to get out their feelings. It was very powerful. We were all in tears."

At this point, people are coming to terms with the need to reconfigure parishes and more accepting, he said.

St. John Bosco is merging with St. Mary Magdalen, Millville, and St. Anthony Mission, Port Norris. The primary worship site, the home of the parish, will be at St. Mary Magdalen.It will take time for the phrase "my parish" to mean the new inclusive entity. "Weíre in the middle of this transition," said Father William Pierce, pastor of St. John Bosco. "Itís a faith journey for all of us."

The animosity and resentment that is being demonstrated at some parishes are not evident here in the Millville area, observed Father Pierce. In fact, the parishís House of Charity ó Bishopís Annual Appeal has been as successful as in previous years. "I commended the parish," said Father Pierce.

As the merging parishes await more guidance from the diocese, no further discussions are being held. Itís an opportunity for all four congregations to prepare for what Father Pierce calls a kind of "courtship," a period when they could get to know each other and begin to interact with one another. It will be important to understand that as they come together, some may feel a bit disenfranchised and a little displaced, said Father Pierce. It will be important to journey to the new place together.

"My grandfather was one of the founders of St. Anthony," said Louis Capaldi. St. Anthony, Port Norris, a mission of St. Michael Parish, Cedarville, was built in 1914, nearly 100 years ago. "My father was one of the first altar servers. I remember as a small boy riding to Mass with my father in our Model T pickup. We went to Mass rain or shine."

After more reminiscing, he added, "There are a lot of Catholics in Port Norris." But not everyone supported the parish, he admitted. "I could see this coming. I just wish it would last long enough for me to be buried from here."

Capaldiís wife Marion talked about the presence of the parish in the tiny community that once supported a prosperous oyster industry. "The town is upset. Weíre part of the community, part of the history," she said.

The Capaldis say that they will probably not join the community of the new merged parish. "I think Iíll just go my way, to St. Isidore in Vineland."

Lena Hanby, a trustee of St. Anthony Mission, participated in some of the planning sessions between the four merging churches.

"We understand that there is a priest shortage." Still, she said, some of the parishioners are upset. "And we have just a few, including myself, that are older ó who were baptized, married and hoped to be buried here," Hanby added.

But what Hanby and others from St. Anthony wanted to relay to Bishop Joseph A. Galante was their hope that the doors stay open until after the celebration of its centennial.

Hanby also talked about St. Anthonyís connection with the surrounding community. Catholics and non-Catholics alike came together when something was needed at the church. And one of the buildings, a social hall, is currently rented for Head Start, a national pre-school readiness program. "If the church closes, I donít know what will happen to the hall."

"Weíre not objecting to the clustering of parishes," Hanby explained. "We know it has to be done. Weíre just asking for a priest to come down each Sunday." She wishes that the tiny mission church wouldnít be written off in history.

Hanby said that the relationship with St. Michael Parish has been good over the years, but that starting over in another parish was not something she wants to do. "Iím not too sure that Iíll be going to St. Mary Magdalen," Hanby said, citing her age, the longer drive, and the parking situation.

"Iím sure Iíd be welcome there," Hanby said. But she said how her small church community was like family. "If I have to go to St. Mary Magdalen, Iím going to feel out-of-place," she said, adding that her feelings are natural for someone who has been born and raised in the St. Anthony community.

Hanby said that she helped the planning committee define their expectations for a priest-convener. "In all fairness to the priest, heís got a tough job to do."

Mike Beatty and Peter Galetto of St. John Bosco, Millville, have also been involved in the planning for this merger. They couldnít say that there was an overwhelming support for the bishopís decision on the merger.

"But I believe that our parishes can pool our resources and work together to create a more vibrant parish," Galetto said. "Itís a worthy goal." He noted that between the two Millville parishes there are some differences in approach and thought.

These include an established church downtown and a newer church on the edge of town, with "philosophical differences" explained Beatty. The issues are hard to define and hard to work through, he said. "The issues involved in this are going to follow us around."

And there isnít one common thread that runs through these mergers, Beatty said, referring to the sentiments of so many across the diocese.

"It is like the death of a family member," Galetto said.

The concept of a merger, whether in business, or in the church, revolves around the people who have to come together, who have to change, Beatty explained. "Not everybody is happy with that," he said. "The big goal for the (priest) convener is to create a process or a set of steps that will lead to a new culture for a new parish. The problem with that, unfortunately, is that one whole worship space is going to be left. Youíre always fighting a winner and a loser. In this case, hopefully thereís no loser, but itís very difficult to overcome that. Iím hoping our new convener or pastor will have some good ideas on how to get to that spot. But that may take a long time."

For many, itís hard to think back to when they were in a parish that was vibrant. "Some of us can," Beatty said. There were religious organizations, family and social events and life centered within the parish community. "We lost some of that along the way."

The road to renewal will be filled with challenges. As a participant on the planning committee, Beatty said his hope is for "openness and a lot of brainstorming."

"The bishop keeps repeating why and what we need to do and where we need to go," said Beatty. "I think people should listen to him. Weíre not rearranging chairs on the deck on the Titanic," Beatty said. "We really do have a lot of very good qualities in each one of our parishes. We need to acknowledge them and assess whatís working well in each parish and accentuate them ó and then look to the things that will make us better and work on those. There are people in each parish who can do this."

The faithful of St. John Bosco, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Michael and St. Anthony will soon write a new shared history. "Weíre going to be better off when we take this leap," said Beatty.

Editorís note: For more information about the parish planning process, see


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