By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Gloria Mancilla, who belonged to St. Mary Parish in Davenport before it merged with St. Anthony Parish, less than two miles away, describes Catholicism as “sharing your culture and sharing your faith in one house.”
The merger took place July 1, but the farewell Mass at St. Mary, which had a predominantly Hispanic membership, took place Oct. 11. Mancilla and other former St. Mary parishioners feel welcome in their new home. However, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic makes it difficult to get to know their new home and community, she said.
Youths that she leads in liturgical dance, teens anticipating their quinceanera (a celebration of a young woman’s transition from childhood to adulthood), and choir members and prayer groups from St. Mary’s want to share their gifts with their new parish, she said. “St. Anthony’s has welcomed us with open arms … they appreciate the diversity — the dancing, the prayer groups. It’s a blessing to them that we bring the youth.”
Last month, leaders in St. Anthony’s parish, finance and stewardship councils met virtually with parish staff and Father Rudolph Juarez, the pastor, “to discuss how we are doing in becoming one parish family,” Pastoral Associate John Cooper wrote in his e-newsletter.
The lay leadership, at the request of Father Juarez, has been reading “Best Practices for Shared Parishes: So That They May All Be One.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published the book “to help parishes achieve a high level of integration and inclusion among its diverse members,” Cooper wrote. Shared parishes are “parish communities in which two or more languages or cultural contexts are present in the ministerial life of the parish. St. Anthony had diversity prior to its merger with St. Mary. Now, it has even more diversity to celebrate.”
Admittedly, the pandemic has hampered efforts to nurture the concept of one parish family because of the precautions that limit in-person gatherings, prevent singing, and sharing meals together, among other activities. “Everyone wants to cook and do things around food and that’s hard to do right now,” Cooper and Father Juarez said in an interview with The Catholic Messenger.
They shared comments from the virtual meeting during which participants responded to a question about their commonalities. Among the comments: “We are all here because of our faith.” “We all want to further our faith and the faith lives of others.” “We are all here to listen to the Word of Christ and live it.”
Father Juarez emphasizes the word “intentional” in the approach of St. Anthony Parish to foster community following the merger. “We have to be intentional about building relationships and reaching out to people.” He referred to the Vision 20/20 initiative of Bishop Thomas Zinkula, which calls Catholics to take “steps to organize ourselves to be proactive and not reactive” in responding to the challenges of the church in a world immersed in secularism.
The work of Cooper and the merger core team is an example of being proactive, Father Juarez said. The core team is now part of the parish leadership. One of the former St. Mary parishioners is now a St. Anthony Parish trustee and another leads St. Anthony’s religious education program.
“We couldn’t have found a better place to land,” said Kay Steele, the new religious education director at St. Anthony Parish. She misses her beloved St. Mary Parish, where she was involved in religious education since 1978. However, she feels welcome in her new parish home. The office staff has been especially helpful. “They are a wonderful group of people to work with,” she said.
Music Director Kim Noftsker recently restarted ukulele, guitar and string ensemble groups to provide a musical outlet since COVID-19 prevents singing. Participation is open to all, regardless of previous experience or religion. Former St. Mary parishioners are among the participants. “Everybody is together — ages 6 through senior citizens,” said Noftsker, who welcomes the newcomers to the parish. “I’m thrilled to pieces that they are here.”
Reflecting on where the parish has been and where it can be “leads us to appreciation of our differences. The process of merging also requires compromise and a little humility,” Father Juarez said. “We know because of our human condition we don’t always get it right, but we are working to get rid of the rough spots.”
Language is one of the rough spots. “It’s taking time to add Spanish and English — everything from signage and the newsletter to the (label) on the confessional,” Cooper said. The parish also hopes to build better communication between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parishioners. “If your care and concern come through, you can overcome the language barrier,” Cooper said.
St. Anthony added a Spanish Mass to its schedule, which required elimination of one English Mass. That decision came after considerable discussion. “We went from four English-speaking Masses to three,” Cooper said. Father Juarez referred to a joke among priests regarding people’s attachment to Mass schedules. “You can do anything, but don’t mess with my Mass times.”
Space is another challenge. The parish’s religious education program, now totaling 130 students, grew more than 50 percent with the merger. “We have 50 kids in confirmation (class) and 30 or so in first Communion (class) and we’re trying to do all of that on Zoom,” Cooper said. “We’ve got a lot of good problems,” Father Juarez said.
The pandemic has bought time for the parish to respond to challenges. “Once COVID is finished we’ll have to be creative. We’ll hopefully have our new parish center by then,” he added, with a smile.
“This is a new chapter in our parish. St. Anthony’s will never be the same but it is the same. It is the center of where we celebrate faith and our community,” Father Juarez said. “We have new energy, new life and it pushes the envelope for us to do our best to respond … it is a moment of grace and a moment of challenge.”