This is the season of parish closings, consolidations and reconfigurations. After watching the phenomenon at a distance for some years, it has finally struck home for me with a one-two punch. Late this spring the Archdiocese of New York announced the closure of my boyhood parish, St. Paul on Staten Island; and early in the summer the Boston Archdiocese decided on the merger of St. Ann in West Newbury, Mass., with Nativity in neighboring Merrimac. St. Ann is the parish to which my family has been attached and where I have celebrated Mass at Christmas, Easter and in the summer for nearly 30 years. Neither announcement was a surprise; both decisions had been in the making for years.
The two events mark the passing of an era when, in big cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, neighborhoods were identified by their parish names. My late friend Harry Corcoran, of the Jesuits’ California Province, spoke with the strong San Francisco accent known as “port Irish.” Harry recalled once meeting a linguist who pinned his distinctive style of speech right down to his native parish, St. Monica’s. So intimate and pervasive was parish life at that time that St. Monica’s, like an urban village, had its own unique accent.
In the early and mid-20th century, parishes frequently served as the focus of community life. For our family it was St. Paul in the New Brighton section of Staten Island. My parents spent time in the 1950’s first repairing the old Victorian mansion that served as our school and then raising money to build a new school. Salva reverentia to my Jesuit and Ivy League professors, the mostly Irish-born Presentation Sisters (P.B.V.M.) were the best teachers I ever had. Our parents and their parish friends also helped found a Cub Scout pack. Mom was our den mother, and Dad moved along with us as a committeeman from Cubs to Scouts to Explorers. At St. Paul I joined the altar boys in sixth grade after a two- or three-year hold, because in those late Tridentine days I was judged too small to carry the heavy Missal from one side of the altar to the other.
Though small in numbers, St. Paul was a devout parish. In those days it held as many as four weekday Masses. Curates commented on how many daily communicants there were, 30 or 40 at the more popular 6:45 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Masses. But it was always a somewhat hard-strapped parish. It was situated in a mix of middle-class neighborhoods and deteriorating older ones. The church, a modest Spanish colonial building, had originally been constructed as a chapel to St. Peter’s, the island’s mother church, a hulking Romanesque structure overlooking New York harbor. When St. Paul’s church was demolished in the 1960’s, property was acquired, but a new church was never constructed. Sunday Mass has been celebrated for four decades in the school auditorium.
St. Ann, for its part, was once a country parish built by the help from the sea captains’ mansions of neighboring Newburyport. Today it is an upscale exurban parish where old farmhouses and three-century-old colonials intermingle with McMansions. So many houses are tucked away in the woods that the town still generates a rural feel. When I heard that the parish had been listed for reconfiguration, my great fear was that the lay participation that had carried the parish over the three decades, under good pastors and not so good ones, would be lost. But thanks to the ponderous decision-making process and some sensible last-minute adjustments, that lay involvement, God-willing, will remain.
St. Ann will be joined to Nativity; one priest will serve both communities, but both churches will remain open. There will be a common parish council and a single finance council, but it appears that other programs will be able to continue as they were. That’s a good thing, I believe. Participation is a key to healthy parish life. When people serve as lectors, eucharistic ministers, religious educators, young adult ministers and so on, not only their sense of community, but also their knowledge of their faith can grow. As parishes grow larger, it will be necessary to preserve and enhance avenues for participation in parish life, not only to build up the sense of community, but to keep the life of faith energized. St. Paul’s modeled that life for one century; St. Ann’s, I hope, will show the way for another.
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America’s editors are pleased to welcome Karen Sue Smith to our editorial staff. Karen comes to us from the National Pastoral Life Center, where she was editor of Church magazine. In her role as editorial director, she will help recruit authors and articles and oversee the literary quality of America.