3 Catholic Churches to Merge
No Timeline for Sacred Heart, St. John the Evangelist, St. Peter's

By Shira Schoenberg
Concord Monitor
November 27, 2008

Three Catholic churches in Concord will eventually merge into a single parish, according to a new recommendation accepted by Bishop John McCormack.

Sacred Heart Church, St. John the Evangelist and St. Peter's Church will be joined under one pastor and one assistant pastor. A timeline for the merger has not yet been set.

"The purpose of the planning process is to have something in place so when the bishop does need to act he's already heard from the people so he has a direction in mind," said Patrick McGee, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester, which oversees New Hampshire's Catholic churches.

Immaculate Heart of Mary on the Heights, which was also part of the discussions, will remain its own parish for now. But a letter from the diocese to parishioners made clear that Immaculate Heart of Mary could eventually be part of other changes involving churches in the Pittsfield, Northwood, Epsom and Barrington areas. Immaculate Conception Church of Penacook also will not be affected at this point but could be involved in future discussions.

"One of the things we're trying to accomplish in the pastoral planning process is to allow room for future changes and future accommodations to meet the needs of parishioners and members of the church," McGee said. "Looking ahead, we don't know what the demographics will be in the coming years."

The planned merger is the result of a discussion process that started in May 2006 as a way to deal with the declining number of priests locally and nationally. Currently, the Concord churches have four priests, but the diocese predicts that by 2012 there will only be three priests available.

The diocese has not determined what will happen to the church buildings. At the beginning, it is likely that all three churches will keep their facilities as local church leadership considers the next step.

"One of the things the new pastor will have to look at is A, can we afford to keep all these buildings? And if we keep them, what will we use them for?" said Esther Crowley, a St. Peter's member who was on the task force making the recommendation.

The final recommendation to merge the three parishes was the result of many months of meetings and discussions with the diocese, Crowley said. An original proposal involved Northfield and Pittsfield, but it was rejected by the diocese because the plan required more pastors than were available.

More recently, the committee deadlocked on whether to include Immaculate Heart of Mary in the merger. According to Crowley, some members wanted to unite the entire Concord community by combining all four churches with one pastor and two associate pastors. Others thought Immaculate Heart of Mary was far enough away geographically that it should not be included. Sacred Heart, St. John the Evangelist and St. Peter's are all within about a mile of one another, near the downtown area. Immaculate Heart of Mary is in the Heights, across the Merrimack River from the others.

Some also thought that Immaculate Heart of Mary, with 1,000 families, was too big to join with St. John, which has 2,500 families. The other churches are smaller - St. Peter's has 650 families, and Sacred Heart has 350.

Ultimately, the task force, which included two members and the priest from each of the local churches, presented both ideas to the bishop, who chose to keep Immaculate Heart of Mary separate.

Crowley said she thinks the merger makes sense from both a geographical and a historical perspective. Originally, she said, Sacred Heart was a predominantly French Canadian parish, while St Peter's was predominantly Italian and Irish. But over the years, the ethnic identities have faded and the populations of the churches have become more similar.

Parishioner Julia Kenney said it is common for people who go to daily Mass to rotate among all three churches, since they are so close to one another geographically. Rituals such as Mass and the sacraments are celebrated the same way at every Catholic church.

"All the parishes are loving, and they'll accept (the change)," Kenney said.

Kathy Planchet, secretary and bookkeeper at Sacred Heart, said Sacred Heart and St. Peter's already share a lot. Two years ago, the churches were "twinned," which means they share a priest and an assistant priest but keep independent business offices. Committees dealing with outreach to the poor and with social issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, already include members from both parishes. When they started sharing a priest, the Mass schedules were changed to complement each other so that if only one priest is available, he can cover all the Masses.

Planchet said she anticipated some changes to Mass schedules and programming once the merger goes through. "I'm sure there will be change, and human nature is that it's difficult to have change," Planchet said. "But it's something we need to know and understand this may be a possibility and have people work towards it. It's a process that's just beginning."

The Rev. Anthony Kuzia, who serves Sacred Heart and St. Peter's, was on vacation this week and could not be reached. The Rev. Steven Montesanti of St. John did not return calls.

The timing of the merger could depend on Kuzia and his assistant, the Rev. Jaroslaw Lawrenz. The two belong to the Vincentian order, which means they are not assigned directly by the Diocese of Manchester. St. Peter's has been served by Vincentian priests for years, and Sacred Heart came under Kuzia when the churches were twinned.

Crowley said the Vincentian order has a contract with the churches until 2011 and said as long as there are Vincentian priests, the diocese would not need to provide its own priests and the churches could remain independent. If the Vincentian priests leave, the diocese will not have people to replace them, so the merger would need to go into effect.

At that point, the bishop would create a new parish with a new name and assign a priest to it. That priest would then need to figure out logistics - what to do with the buildings, how to adjust schedules, what to do about parking and how to best serve the members of all the churches.

"Whether all three churches will remain, I have no idea," Crowley said.

An impending priest shortage is a problem throughout New Hampshire, as it is in much of the United States. Since 2000, there have been 12 new parishes created by merging 29 churches across the state, according to the diocese. An additional 11 parishes were closed and unified into existing parishes. There are 33 parishes that share pastors.

One of the situations most similar to Concord is in Portsmouth, where three churches merged about 2 years ago to become a new parish, called Corpus Christi. All three churches kept their buildings, although church leaders are now waiting for approval from the diocese to close one.

The Rev. Michael Kerper said the experience has been a positive one. "What we discovered was that each existing parish had certain strengths and weaknesses and, by merging people who were talented in one area, they were able to share their talents and energy with people in other parishes," Kerper said.

The Portsmouth parish has about 2,100 families. Kerper said when he first served in Portsmouth, from 1985 to 1988, there were nine priests between three churches. Now, there are two priests. He said the lack of priests has been made up for by increased activity among lay people, with a professional staff that includes a business manager, a pastoral associate, bookkeepers and a cemetery manager, among others. Individuals in the parish have taken on roles such as visiting the sick or leading prayers in prisons, which would otherwise have been done by priests.

The merger also allowed the churches to learn from one another to improve music and altar service, as well as to help each other financially.

"By pooling our resources, it has enhanced life in our community and brought together people who lived two blocks away but never knew each other," Kerper said.


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