By Celine Klosterman
After clustering with St. Mary Parish in Tipton, St. Mary’s in Mechanicsville is adapting to no longer having a resident priest. The Tipton parish, meanwhile, is adjusting to sharing its pastor. And Catholics in both parishes are marking their calendars with a new Mass schedule and getting to know the new faces in the pews.
A cooperative outlook is helping parishioners make those changes, according to Rodney Barton, president of the parish council and member of the finance council in Tipton. Last year, as he and other members of each parish envisioned how they could collaborate in a future with fewer priests, “it became apparent we had a common goal in mind. Neither of us was looking to dominate; we were looking to be more like siblings. Our plan is about mutual respect and understanding each other’s desire to continue as a viable parish.”
That plan developed as all 80 parishes in the Diocese of Davenport discussed how and with whom they would work together if the number of diocesan priests continues to drop, as projected. The diocesan-guided planning process ended last year.
When Father Andrew Kelly retired as pastor of St. Mary’s in Mechanicsville Feb. 13, the plan calling for the Mechanicsville and Tipton parishes to cluster became the first in the diocese to take effect. Father David Hitch, who has been pastor for the roughly 350 families at St. Mary’s in Tipton since 2004, is now pastor of the 100-family parish in Mechanicsville, as well.
“The big thing for us is adjusting to a new priest,” said Gerald Inman, a parish trustee in Mechanicsville. “It’s a different change for Tipton — they’re sharing a priest now.”
“We’d been fairly spoiled to have always had a priest just for us,” said Diane Wehde, a member of the parish council in Tipton. Now, “We all feel fortunate that we still have a priest.”
She and other leaders from both parishes counted their blessings — and assessed their challenges — during a March 4 meeting on the parishes’ transition. Dan Ebener, director of stewardship and parish planning for the diocese, participated.
“It was a very positive meeting; both parishes were being very open-minded, patient, welcoming and understanding,” he said. “There was a lot of laughter and joy in the room.”
Catholics’ suggestions included creating a joint bulletin, hiring a part-time office administrator in Mechanicsville to handle duties formerly covered by a priest, and learning from each other’s areas of success. For example, each weekend at St. Mary’s in Mechanicsville, a different “host family” greets Catholics as they enter for Mass. Tipton parishioners would like to do something similar, Barton said. And Lori Crock, parish council president and director of religious education in Mechanicsville, told The Catholic Messenger she hopes to improve her parish’s religious education program with help from St. Mary’s in Tipton.
One of the most noticeable changes already underway is the new Mass schedule. Weekday and Saturday evening Masses now alternate between the two churches; 8 a.m. Sunday Mass is in Mechanicsville, and 10 a.m. Sunday Mass is celebrated in Tipton. For Fr. Hitch, who lives in Tipton, it’s a lot of driving: 16 miles to and from each church on Sunday mornings, and sometimes again on Sunday evenings for a parish council meeting in Mechanicsville. Between Sunday Masses, there’s not much time for him to visit religious education classes or socialize at events such as an upcoming senior breakfast, he noted.
Parishioners try to ease the time crunch by completing Mass preparations for him on Sunday mornings, Wehde said. And on the two weekends a month that Saturday evening Mass is in Mechanicsville, he cuts down on traveling by staying in the rectory there overnight.
Crock said her parish in Mechanicsville has noticed “quite a bit” more attendance from Tipton Catholics in the habit of going to Saturday evening Mass. Tipton parishioners recently even started providing music for Saturday liturgies in Mechanicsville, she noted. “That’s working out wonderfully.”
Not all parishioners are satisfied yet with the new Mass times. Though clustering required some changes to the weekly schedule, both parishes would like to keep Christmas Mass times the same to accommodate families’ traditions. Doing so would require the help of a second priest, parishioners noted March 4.
Catholics have voiced concerns that two parishes may be too much for Fr. Hitch, 70, Crock noted. “But he reassured us that he has no major health problems and is up to the challenge.”
But, he said, “it would be great if someone from Mechanicsville would get training to lead a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP),” in case he becomes unable to celebrate a Mass there and can’t find a substitute priest. Tipton parishioner Mary Barnum is trained to lead a SCAP.
Fr. Hitch also suggested parishioners consider the diocese’s Ministry Formation Program, which trains lay Catholics for ministry.
Parish leaders will meet in the next several weeks with Char Maaske, the diocese’s chief financial officer, to discuss matters including how to split the expense of the pastor’s salary.
Long-term, Inman hopes some of the changes in both Tipton and at his parish in Mechanicsville may inspire fallen-away Catholics in the area to take another look at one or both St. Mary parishes. He encourages Catholics to search for the opportunities clustering can bring. “By clustering, we keep our parish open,” he said. “We have to be willing to be cooperative, with neighboring parishes and the diocese.”
“To me the most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about ‘winning,’” said Barton, of St. Mary’s in Tipton. “It’s about remembering to have respect for the other party, to understand the emotions coming into play. A parish is part of your life, your family, your history. If you feel like that’s threatened, it’s just like a family member being threatened. We all need to be mindful of that and work to find common ground … We really are one family in Christ.”