A year in the life of a parish in transition
The night of Nov. 30, 2021, is bitterly cold, but it is warm inside St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn. Well over 100 parishioners kneel in the pews for adoration, and incense wafts through beams of dim light. Outside, dozens of paper lanterns are arranged on the ground in the shape of a heart. It is the last service led by the Dominican priests who have served as the spiritual leaders of this parish and have resided in its neighboring priory for 135 years.
The announcement of the Dominicans’ departure ignited immediate controversy in the New Haven Catholic community, with many people who frequently worship at St. Mary’s taking to social media and speaking to the press about their disappointment. St. Mary’s is nestled in the Yale University campus, at the foot of Hillhouse Avenue—a street lined with 19th-century mansions, including the home of Yale’s president. The parish has long held a reputation as a gathering place for Catholics, from both the city and the surrounding areas, who seek a more traditional style of worship. (Think Latin chants and incense.) Integral to this reverence, many parishioners have said, is the presence of the Dominicans.
In a letter dated Oct. 5 posted on St. Mary’s website, John Paul Walker, O.P., then the pastor, wrote that as of January 2022, “the pastoral care of this municipal parish will be entrusted entirely to the care of priests of the Archdiocese of Hartford—and thus a continuing presence of the Dominican friars in the pastoral ministry of St. Mary Parish or in residence at St. Mary Priory will no longer be possible.” (Full disclosure: I used to worship at St. Mary’s and was drawn there after it became one of the few churches offering services during the pandemic.)
The decision was part of the implementation of the second phase of a larger reorganization plan for the Archdiocese of Hartford, which, like many, faces a declining number of priests. The city of New Haven also faces a declining number of Catholics—to 10,000 today from 70,000 in 1930. The first phase of the plan in 2017 led to the merging of St. Mary’s Church and St. Joseph’s Church into one parish. The 2021 phase included a new “municipal model” for Catholic life in New Haven, in which all area churches would come together into one entity, with St. Mary’s Church at the center. In essence, a city that once was home to numerous parishes, each with its own pastor, would function as the equivalent of a single parish, with each of the worship sites sharing a dwindling number of priests.
In the time since the announcement was made, anxiety among the faithful has waxed and waned, moving in some cases from apprehension to peace; in others, consternation remains.
Overseeing this united model is a “moderator,” or a “first among equals” as defined in Canon Law, according to a statement by Archbishop Leonard P. Blair. The archdiocese implemented a “process of pastoral planning,” according to the statement, in order “to take an honest look at the situations and structures of the Catholic population of the Archdiocese in order to begin making changes that will assist in re-organizing the local Church not just for today but also into the future.”
Father Walker declined to comment for this story, but various parishioners at St. Mary’s spoke with America, both at the start of the transition and in the ensuing months. In the time since the announcement was made, anxiety among the faithful has waxed and waned, moving in some cases from apprehension to peace; in others, consternation remains.
The difficulty of the transition has been underlined by the fact that such passionate feelings about one’s place of worship are not unique to the St. Mary’s community. As the Catholic Church in the United States faces changing demographics, lower Mass attendance and the cost of maintaining infrastructure, adjustments are required on the diocesan, parish and personal levels. Dioceses may or may not ask for feedback, and parishioners may or may not feel heard. Bishops must be responsible stewards of resources, but parishioners are also understandably protective of their parish history and communities.
In many ways, the story of St. Mary’s is noteworthy not because it is unique but because it is a tale occurring, in various iterations, across the country. Catholic life in the United States is changing and will continue to change. Many have argued that when there is a vocal reaction to such change, it is worth listening to those voices in an effort to learn how people are affected and how we, as a church, can move forward together.
Some parish merger decisions originate at the parish level, with conclusions and proposals being reached by clergy and lay leaders, but for a municipal model merger involving nearly a dozen churches, this approach was not feasible.
A Listening Church?
Michael Mercugliano, whose family has traveled the 20 miles from Durham, Conn., to attend Mass at St. Mary’s since 2006, described his reaction to America in November 2021. Mr. Mercugliano explained that while he does not think Archbishop Blair is “doing anything scandalous,” he was among several parishioners who mentioned a wish that more members of the parish had been consulted.
“God is found in relationships, right?” Mr. Mercugliano said. “He communicates with us through ordinary means and people; and certainly I think as a dad, as a husband, if I’m going to make a decision that’s going to impact the family, here at home, I’m going to sit down and talk with everybody.”
He added in a later email that he is “pretty certain” that St. Mary’s will “do fine” and continue to grow even with the changes. “Only time will tell how things will pan out,” Mr. Mercugliano wrote. “I do believe the bishop is doing the best he can for the church.” He also praised the leadership of Father John Paul Walker.
In an email in December 2021, David Elliott, the associate director of communications and public relations for the Archdiocese of Hartford, responded to criticisms of the archdiocese’s communication patterns. He noted that research conducted by an external consulting group combined with “sacramental and financial” data factored into the decision.
He wrote that parishioners’ sense of feeling ignored was upsetting, and that he had personally responded to every communication he received.
“Depending on the size and scope of any given pastoral planning initiative, approaches will differ,” Mr. Elliott wrote. “Some parish merger decisions originate at the parish level, with conclusions and proposals being reached by clergy and lay leaders, but for a municipal model merger involving nearly a dozen churches, this approach was not feasible. However, the Archdiocese did rely heavily upon the many small and large group discussions that took place throughout the course of our 2020 Synod (where lay representatives from all New Haven parishes were present), taking into account the sense of urgency and desire for long-lasting, quality pastoral care expressed by our lay leaders.”
Change is not easy and transitions are challenging, but I am confident that just as linkages and mergers elsewhere in the Archdiocese have been successful, they can also be successful in New Haven.
The archdiocese published a letter from Archbishop Blair in The New Haven Register about the change and posted videos featuring the new diocesan priests assigned to New Haven. Registered households also received a letter from Archbishop Blair.
“Change is not easy and transitions are challenging, but I am confident that just as linkages and mergers elsewhere in the Archdiocese have been successful, they can also be successful in New Haven,” Archbishop Blair wrote at the time.
A More Peaceful Transition
The difficulty adjusting to new parish structures or leadership felt by some at St. Mary’s is common. Especially in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, many parishes have closed or consolidated in recent years. In 2021, the Diocese of Pittsburgh went to 81 from 107 parishes. In 2022, the Archdiocese of St. Louis took steps to go to approximately 100 parishes from 178. In the last five years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has gone to 247 parishes from 350; and since 1997, the Archdiocese of Boston has dropped to 284 parishes from 394.
According to Mark Mogilka, a consultant with over 30 years of experience in pastoral planning at the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., there are several steps that church leadership can take to ensure a smooth reorganization process. He pointed to the example of Manitowoc in the Diocese of Green Bay, which underwent an extensive pastoral planning process in the early 2000s. Each of six churches was invited to choose two lay representatives who together, along with the pastors, formed the diocese’s planning committee. Mr. Mogilka says that “ideally” this is done in consultation with their pastoral councils. The committee was then given membership and financial data as well as future projections and was tasked with outlining a plan to reorganize the parish structures of the area.
The group’s first proposal was rejected, but the second attempt was stronger: All six churches would be consolidated into one parish under the direction of a pastor and two associates, with three of the six buildings closing.
Mr. Mogilka emphasized that the committee’s plan at this stage was a draft—a draft that underwent scrutiny by all parties involved. Minutes of meetings were published, he said, pastoral councils were consulted, and public town halls were held, with Mr. Mogilka himself leading a meeting of about 600 people at a local high school in which participants looked at the draft and asked questions.
The plan did not please everyone, Mr. Mogilka said, but in the end, the number of people who were “aggressively unhappy” with the results was limited.
“You can’t mandate community.”
But even the best planning cannot dictate where people feel at home or the people with whom they connect. The plan was implemented in 2005, and Mr. Mogilka later analyzed community members’ attitudes after a decade. Around 40 percent of those surveyed said that unity had been achieved since the restructuring. But around 50 percent said that some unity or little unity had been achieved, and around 10 percent said that despite the new consolidated model, the community had not come together at all.
“You can’t mandate community,” Mr. Mogilka said. “It doesn’t work. It disrespects the culture and especially the deep roots of people’s faith and generational investments in the sacred space that they’ve worshiped in.”
Mr. Mogilka said that the best pastoral planning processes are “open, collaborative, transparent.” When these terms are met, he said, “when the final plan is announced, there are few, if any, surprises, because all the various options have been discussed, and lay leadership from each of the parishes involved are at the table, in the conversations and in the creation of final recommendations that are forwarded to the bishop.”
The Leaders of the Municipal Model
In transitions of parish leadership, the spotlight often lands on the new pastor, who may be viewed as a savior by some or an interloper by others. In the case of St. Mary’s, the moderator is the Rev. Ryan Lerner, the current chaplain of Yale University and the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hartford. [Editor’s note: Father Lerner serves on the prize committee of the George W. Hunt Prize, an award that is administered by America Media and the Catholic chaplaincy at Yale.]
Tacy Woods, a parishioner at St. Mary’s for over 25 years, told America in December 2021 that she was worried that the move might indicate a top-down mentality to the new arrangement. But despite her concerns, she said that she planned to give Father Lerner the benefit of the doubt. When he served as parochial vicar for St. Margaret’s in Madison, Conn., Ms. Woods knew him distantly because she regularly brought Communion to a nearby nursing home. Whenever someone wanted to receive the anointing of the sick, she said, he was “so responsive and genuinely caring about people.”
“This is a community that feels they have not been heard, that this seems to have come top-down and seems to be very shocking for them.”
Father Lerner concluded his role as chancellor earlier this year, and in an interview with America before he began to be moderator, he acknowledged he had seen a range of responses from among those who would be his new parishioners. He said he was taking parishioners’ unease seriously as the timeline moves forward, and he acknowledged that some have shown skepticism because his service to the church has largely been as an archdiocesan administrator, not a pastor.
“This is a community that feels they have not been heard, that this seems to have come top-down and seems to be very shocking for them,” he said.
Father Lerner also described how the leadership structure at St. Thomas More, where he shares duties with a team of chaplains, would help him in his new role. He added that immediately after the announcement of his new role, Father Walker reached out to him to talk about the transition; and since then he has spoken at length with the Dominican pastor about how to minister best to the people of St. Mary’s. “First on [his] list,” Father Lerner said, is speaking with parishioners and hosting town halls and listening sessions.
“It will be extremely important for me to be present to them,” he said.
The Rev. Anthony Federico, the newly appointed parochial vicar of St. Mary’s, also added in December that, although he knew there might be some “bumps and bruises,” he planned to “offer [his] life in full service”—in addition to meeting as many people as possible, from staff to volunteers to “all the folks in the pews.”
The first days and months of a new pastor can require a major adjustment for all involved. Brett Hoover, an associate professor of practical/pastoral theology at Loyola Marymount University, told America that pastors should keep several things in mind when taking on a role at a new parish. He pointed especially to the need to take into account the differing viewpoints of church leadership and parishioners. He said that the leadership has a “much bigger kind of chessboard,” to deal with—for example, they must take a broader view of dioceses, particularly how the scarce resource of priests is distributed—while parishioners are, understandably, focused on their smaller communities.
He further emphasized the importance of making any changes slowly, and said he would advise pastors in transitions not to make any “sudden moves.”
Brett Hoover, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, said that if parishioners are venting their feelings, it’s critical for pastors to listen to those feelings and make sure they feel heard.
“There used to be an adage that, if you’re a new pastor, don’t change anything for a year,” Dr. Hoover said.
He also noted that while some parishioners may vocally air their grievances, that doesn’t equate to a threat to leave the parish. Still, he said that if parishioners are venting their feelings, it’s critical for pastors to listen to those feelings and make sure they feel heard.
‘What Are We Going to Lose?’
While Catholicism does not have independent local congregations like some branches of Protestantism, Dr. Hoover noted that Catholics sometimes subscribe to the concept of de facto congregationalism, the idea that one’s parish is their congregation.
Among the concerns noted by parishioners at St. Mary’s, the overarching one was that of identity. St. Mary’s allows only male altar servers, and Mass attendees often dress more formally than those at Masses in other Catholic churches in New Haven. Walking into a service, one will often see young families with several young children kneeling in the pews, and sometimes a woman will wear a veil.
“It’s your particular faith community,” Dr. Hoover said. “It belongs to you.” As a result, some parishes have a particular character associated with them—a character that, when new leadership arrives, may appear to be endangered.
“What are we going to lose?” Ms. Woods asked. “We’re really losing a lot of our identity by losing the Dominicans, and as good as the new pastors may be, they’re not Dominicans, and it’s going to be hard for us to no longer be a Dominican parish.”
But both Father Lerner and Father Federico emphasized that the heart of the parish identity is something they will strive very hard to keep.
“Nothing dramatic is going to change, and certainly not the core identity of this place as a place where liturgy is exquisitely done, and solid orthodox Catholic preaching is expected, a place where young families are welcomed and celebrated,” Father Federico said. “All of that is going to stay the same.”
While smaller details of parish life—a Mass time, for example—may change, Father Lerner emphasized that the core of the community will remain true to the spirit of the community.
He added that his own faith journey was accompanied by the Dominicans—he attended the Dominican-affiliated Providence College in Rhode Island for his undergraduate degree and studied later at Albertus Magnus College, which was founded by the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs (now the Dominican Sisters of Peace) and located in New Haven. During his time at the latter, he said, he often prayed at the nearby St. Mary’s.
Father Lerner said much the same in the Dec. 5, 2021, bulletin for St. Mary’s, acknowledging the now-former pastor Father Walker’s work at the church and noting his own relationship with St. Mary’s, where he prayed while in seminary. While smaller details of parish life—a Mass time, for example—may change, Father Lerner emphasized that the core of the community will remain true to the spirit of the community.
“In that spirit, I want to assure you that I have no hidden agenda,” Father Lerner wrote in the bulletin. “This will continue to be a place where God is worshiped with the utmost reverence and joy, where the truth is preached in love, the Gospel is proclaimed unapologetically, and individuals and families, both in the pews and [among] those who are searching, journey ever closer to Christ together.”
Looking Back—and Forward
Months later, in the spring of 2022, the faint aroma of incense hangs in the air. Ms. Woods said that while parish life is not exactly the same without the Dominicans, she appreciates the hard work that goes into being a parish priest and pointed out multiple times the vast number of responsibilities split between Father Lerner and Father Federico. “I don’t know how they’re still alive with the amount that they have to do,” she said.
Sara Hunter, another St. Mary’s parishioner, echoed Ms. Woods, saying that she understands that the priests are doing the best they can given how many responsibilities they have.
Both Ms. Hunter and Ms. Woods circled back to what Ms. Hunter called “one of the elephants in the room”: distrust between parishioners and the archdiocese. When asked about some parishioners’ distrust, Mr. Elliott responded by email on June 17 that throughout the months of April and May, archdiocesan representatives met with an estimated total of 200 parishioners from several New Haven churches on six separate occasions.
Father Lerner of St. Mary's: “We come to take pastoral care of this parish, and we do the best we can.”
“I believe that through these forums, which combined total roughly 18 hours worth of in-person engagement, as well as other efforts, we have exercised a high level of transparency and communication,” Mr. Elliott wrote.
In an interview in early June, Father Lerner said that for the most part, he thinks things are going fairly well, despite a few glitches. America asked Father Lerner about the town halls and listening sessions he mentioned in a prior interview. While he originally intended to host such sessions, he wrote in an email on June 9, it “quickly became apparent that opinions and feelings were all over the place.” A resultant “toxic” atmosphere, combined with outsiders—for example, people with little connection to St. Mary’s, or people who lived outside Connecticut—who would loudly comment on the situation, led him to determine that something else was needed.
“I felt that providing an open forum where a few voices might dominate the conversation, and pose issues that I as the new pastor would not have been in a position to address, would have proven unhelpful, deepen wounds, and potentially worsen an already tense situation,” Father Lerner wrote. He added that he felt a more “ordered and quantitative analysis” of the situation would be best.
In early spring 2022, leadership at St. Mary’s held a SWOT analysis—a business term that stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—to better understand the status of the community. After consultation with parish leaders, the priests invited nearly 40 parishioners to attend, many of whom still said they felt unheard by the archdiocese.
“We come to take pastoral care of this parish, and we do the best we can,” he wrote, adding that more SWOT analyses are also being conducted in other New Haven parishes. And these other parishes, he said, must not be forgotten in the bigger picture of local Catholic life in New Haven.
“My job, both as pastor and moderator is to shepherd the process of bringing all the Catholics in New Haven together, those of Saint Mary’s and the other parishes who make up this local manifestation of the Body of Christ.”
“My job, both as pastor and moderator,” Father Lerner wrote, “is to shepherd the process of bringing all the Catholics in New Haven together, those of Saint Mary’s and the other parishes who make up this local manifestation of the Body of Christ.”
When asked what other changes are on the horizon, Father Lerner pointed to his most recent project: creating a citywide Mass schedule that coordinates priests and parishes to avoid stretching resources thin. The updated schedule resulted in Masses offered on Sundays at 15 different times, along with several options for daily Masses and confessions. This, Father Lerner said, will allow New Haven’s priests to be more available to parishioners, leaving them more time to mingle with church members and provide more services outside of Mass.
Most people he consulted, Father Lerner explained, said that the changes seemed reasonable. But they cautioned him that some parishioners wouldn’t be enthusiastic.
“It’ll enable us to be more present to people,” Father Lerner said. “And I think that that would be important. It’s also important that people understand that everyone’s giving something up. We’re all losing something for the common good.”
The new Mass schedule was announced in the bulletin on Pentecost.
The transition’s impact on St. Mary’s, from beginning to the present—and on priest and parishioner alike—has been significant. But in conversations with America, nearly everyone interviewed mentioned that central to dealing with the change was additional prayer and reflection.
“One thing that I’m constantly going back to is St. John Chrysostom,” Ms. Woods said, “who said something to the effect of not to be confused when things look other than what God wants to do, because it’s an opportunity for God to show that everything is done in his power.”
In November 2022, St. Mary’s remains a vibrant parish, thanks in part to a devoted core of parishioners who come to the parish to encounter God.
St. Mary’s has offered many opportunities for prayer and reflection in the past year. In October 2021, Father Lerner said by email that some of those events included “a candle-lit Vigil for Divine Mercy Sunday, with the Archdiocesan Director of Deliverance and Healing Ministry as a special guest celebrant and homilist, veneration of the relics of Saint Faustina and Saint John Paul the Great, confessions and adoration throughout the night.” He added that the parish had “one of the most successful, well-attended Corpus Christi Processions in recent history,” which drew people from both the parish and the region. He expects more than 10 people to be received into the church this year, through the parish R.C.I.A. program.
Father Lerner also noted that the SWOT analysis has been completed and two to four lay leaders have been appointed at each parish as part of what he described as a “city-wide transition team” through which lay and ordained “can work together towards becoming one New Haven Catholic community, with manifold expressions of the rich diversity of our Catholic faith.”
One year after the transition, at a Sunday morning Mass in November 2022, St. Mary’s remains a vibrant parish, thanks in part to a devoted core of parishioners who come to the parish to encounter God. The incense still hangs in the air, drifting toward the ceiling. Thirteen altar boys line the sanctuary, and some of the women in the pews are wearing veils. The atmosphere is rich with reverence and tradition.
Immacula Didier, a lector at St. Mary’s, put it simply and eloquently: “What I was looking for was the feeding of my soul, and that continues.”
Michael Tortora, a parishioner since the 1990s and member of the parish’s Knights of Columbus council, still feels unsatisfied about the handling of the transition, but he said that the entire parish and its leadership have made the best of it.
“It led me to question how I wanted to be involved [at St. Mary’s], and did I still want to be involved?” he said. “But the culture and the community has stayed the same.”
“They’re working really hard to provide the quality homilies, that reverent liturgy that we are used to, the smells and the bells.”
A parishioner since 2002, David Lobo said, “The path of the last two or three years has been rocky, but in no way, shape or form has that rockiness shaken our devotion to St. Mary’s. We never left.”
For more on the changing landscape of parish life in the United States, watch America’s documentary “People of God,” directed by Sebastian Gomes.
Christopher Parker contributed reporting from New Haven, Conn.