Catholic Free Press

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  • Nov
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Parishioners react to changes in Gardner parishes

Posted By November 14, 2014 | 3:43 pm | Featured Article #1

By Patricia O’Connell
CFP Correspondent

GARDNER – Mary Lou Faust has been a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish for more than 40 years. November 2, during the Sunday morning Mass, it was announced that her church would be closing, along with St. Joseph Church. This is due to a reconfiguration process scheduled to go into effect July 1.
In fact, all four Gardner parishes – Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, Holy Spirit, and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary – will become a single parish, with two campuses. The new parish will worship at Holy Rosary Church on Nichols Street and at Holy Spirit Church on Lovewell Street. The new territorial parish has yet to be named.
However, the two “closed” churches may still be used for special events, according to Diocesan Chancellor Raymond L. Delisle. 
“There is a tendency to confuse the terms parish and church,” Mr. Delisle said. “All four parishes will be merged into one new parish next year. Two of the churches have been designated by Bishop McManus for regular Sunday liturgies in order to bring that community together and to make it possible to be served by one pastoral team.”
“However, the four churches and associated buildings will continue to be assets of the new parish and may still be used for occasional use as the new parish clarifies its needs,” he explained. “Some examples which come to mind include funerals, weddings, social gatherings, school Masses, or food pantries. Down the road, if the parish no longer has need of a facility or it becomes a burden, it can request that the building be closed and sold in order to financially assist its various ministries.”
Mrs. Faust said she was not surprised by the news, since rumors had been circulating for the past five years that a merger, at some point, would probably happen.
Although she hadn’t had a chance to fully process the news, she said people have been “watching the potential death of our parish for several years.”
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” she added.
This latest announcement comes just after the recent merger of the city’s Catholic elementary schools, formerly known as Holy Rosary and Sacred Heart schools, located at their respective parishes. The new Holy Family Academy uses both school buildings, but there is only one principal.
Despite her disappointment, Mrs. Faust expressed confidence in Father Brian P. O’Toole, current pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and Sacred Heart parishes. “He’ll shepherd us through this,” she said.
Mrs. Faust noted that there is presently a cultural divide between the parishes. Sacred Heart, her parish, was founded by Irish immigrants, although it now has a more mixed congregation. Holy Rosary has historically been a French-Canadian parish, while St. Joseph is ethnically Polish and has retained a number of traditional Polish devotions.
However, Mrs. Faust believes that going forward it’s important for all of the groups to come together as one Catholic community, and she said this will happen “with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
“We’re all going to have to take the attitude it will work out,” she said. “We’re all going to have to do our part.”
Father O’Toole said the news did not come as a surprise, as merging had been a possibility for a number of years, and that some plans were laid even before he arrived in Gardner six years ago.
“There’s going to be a day when there’s a consolidation of some sort,” he said, was something generally understood as eventually happening. 
However, he noted that the reality of putting this into practice is distressing, as he pointed out, “There’s going to be a lot of emotion that goes with it.”
However, he said that the expense of maintaining the existing buildings has become prohibitive. “The overhead is greater than the resources,” he explained.
Father O’Toole stressed that, despite their  disappointment, it is very important for people to continue attending Mass. He recommended that the members of the closed churches find a new spiritual home where they feel comfortable, and where they will be fed. Staying away from church, he said, would be “doing a disservice to your soul.”
Father Thomas M. Tokarz has been pastor of St. Joseph’s on Pleasant Street for the past 20 years. He is also pastor of Holy Spirit on Lovewell Street.
He believes the announcement has been much more emotional for the people of St. Joseph, who will lose their church building as a worship site, as it was announced that this church will close.
“It’s nothing new, we knew about it,” Father Tokarz said.
However, he noted that the parishioners still had to come to terms with the news, after it was announced last weekend. “They had an inkling,” he said, adding that they knew a merger was in the process, but they weren’t sure which churches would survive.
“The times change, so you have to go with the flow,” Father Tokarz said.
In a letter from Bishop McManus, posted on the diocesan website and distributed to parishioners, he wrote that ongoing discussions about moving the merging process forward have been happening for more than a year.
“Having considered the state of the parishes as they exist today, the needs of the community as a whole, and the ever-growing mission to evangelize in our communities, I have decided to accept a recommendation to establish one new territorial parish with two worship sites for Gardner,” he wrote.
The bishop, in his letter, explained that building one new church to serve everyone would not be “financially feasible.”
The bishop outlined that a transition team, comprised of members from all four parishes, will be formed to assist with the changes. He’ll also be receiving input from parishioners at each of these parishes, about recommendations for the name of the new parish.
Bishop McManus’ letter noted that, in addition to the transition team, there will also be a new “pastoral team,” which will be named next June.
Mr. Delisle said this will mean changes in the priests currently assigned to Gardner. “There will be a new pastor,” he said.
Father Tokarz said he understands he’ll be moving out of Gardner at the end of June. Father O’Toole concurred that staffing changes are coming, but said he’d be available through June to help with the transition.
Mrs. Faust said she believes acceptance of the merger will come after people move through the various stages of grief, as outlined by the Kubler-Ross model, developed by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“This is a grief we’re going to have to work through in all five stages,” she said, adding that she’s sure it will happen. “We will get to the acceptance stage.”
“We hope that everyone will keep the Gardner Catholic community in their prayers as they move forward,” Mrs. Faust said.