First there was dead silence and then there were tears.
That is how the Rev. Robert J. Verrigni described the reaction of parishioners at St. Ursula in Mount Vernon, N.Y., to the announcement on Nov. 2 that their parish would merge with another and cease to celebrate weekly Masses after Aug. 1, 2015. The Archdiocese of New York will merge 112 of its parishes into 55. Twenty-four of the merged parishes will use two sites for scheduled Masses. St. Ursula is one of at least 31 churches that will be open only for occasional Masses and celebrations.
Father Verrigni, the parish administrator, said that longtime parishioners were most upset, but children in the religious education programs also approached him to ask where they would receive their first Eucharist and confirmation. “I told everyone, ‘Right now, this is the way the church is going and we have to trust God’s will for the future,’” he said.
St. Ursula is one of six parishes in Mount Vernon. After the mergers are complete, there will be three.
“Part of me is just empty,” said Maria Paulercio, a parishioner at St. Ursula for 55 years. “Tears started rolling from my eyes when we heard. I feel it was a done deal from the beginning of the process. The cardinal knew what would happen, but they were trying to give the parish time to accept it,” she said.
In Port Chester, a Westchester County village of 29,000 people, four parishes established to serve various immigrant communities will merge into one, with two worship sites. Harry Florentine, a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy, which traditionally served Irish-Americans, said the merger “has the possibility of creating a stronger multiethnic, multicultural church community in Port Chester. Instead of having the divisions we now see, there would be more unity.”
At St. Roch on Staten Island, Mary Lou Sanginari, a lifelong parishioner, said, “I’m devastated. I think it’s a disgrace to the Catholic Church. We’ll do anything to keep this church open. My daughter’s an attorney. I’m going to see if she can draw up some papers and start a petition.” St. Roch is slated to be merged, and its church will not be used for scheduled Masses.
Sanginari was one of several people who said they may go to a non-Catholic church if their church closes.
Eileen Mulcahy, director of the parish planning office for the Archdiocese of New York, said other dioceses found many of the people who left after the mergers later returned. “People are angry in the moment, but it’s short term,” she said. “This process is not one of abandoning people. The people are the ones we’re focusing on.”
St. John in the Bronx is the receiving parish for a merger with Visitation. The Rev. Michael Kerrigan, the St. John administrator, said, “It’s easier for us, but we can understand the sense of sadness and if the roles were reversed, we’d be sad, too.” A letter to the parishioners from Cardinal Timothy Dolan asked receiving parishes to recognize mergers “not as ‘them’ having to fit into ‘your’ parish, but as two parishes coming together, in the Lord’s name, to become a new worshipping family.”
Mark Hallinan, S.J., is pastor of two Staten Island parishes that will merge into one. His parishioners are predominantly Mexican immigrants, some of whom lack legal status. He said the hardest part of the announcement is that “these people have had the experience of not being cared for. I wanted to make sure that they understand the archdiocese is not abandoning them.”