By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
“Highway 22 Cluster” is the nickname of three parishes located in towns where Iowa Highway 22 passes through: St. Mary in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman.
The three parishes, located south of Iowa City, have a combined membership of about 700 parishioners. They became “engaged” 20 years ago when they formed a cluster served by one pastor. “If we didn’t have a cluster, we wouldn’t have a priest; it’s a necessity,” said Doug Yotty, a member of the Richmond parish who serves on the cluster parishes’ finance council as well as his parish’s finance council. A retired accountant, he also assists the parishes with accounting.
They share a pastor, Father Bill Roush; Deacon Derick Cranston, who also serves as their pastoral associate; RoseMary Fiagle, religious education director; and Jane Duwa, business manager. “I am fortunate the parishes pooled money so I could be hired full time; one parish by itself couldn’t do it,” Deacon Cranston said.
“The benefits of this cluster are the many new friends you make and the wonderful relationship we have with each other,” said Cindy Michel, a member and former lay director of St. Mary Parish-Riverside. In addition to her parish activities, she serves on the cluster finance council and helped organize the “cluster choir,” which has been temporarily silenced during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“All three parishes truly care about each other and want each parish to remain strong. We can go to Mass at any parish in the cluster, have our parish priest, and make our monetary donation; cash donations stay at the parish that held the Mass while offertory envelopes support the specific parish someone is a member of,” Michel said. “When each parish has their annual fall dinners/fund raisers, auctions, etc., all three parishes are very generous in supporting the success of the parish fundraiser by donating items for auction, helping make food, working the event, and purchasing what the parish is selling to help everyone’s budget. We have a lot of fun together.”
“One benefit of being part of the cluster is comparing and/or combining ideas,” said Pam Bender, a member and former lay director of the Wellman parish who also served on the cluster finance council. “Another is getting to know the leaders and parishioners of the other two parishes. An example — the ladies of the three parishes got together during the Christmas season last year to clean and decorate the rectory.”
All three members of the cluster, and their pastor, agree that challenges exist. Michel identifies one challenge as sharing a pastor, which requires “compromising on Mass times, baptisms, first Communion, reconciliation, weddings, and holidays.” Other challenges? “Trying to combine the finances so they are all under one bank account. Trying to get the congregation to understand that their funds will still support their parish even though it’s all under one account.”
The largest challenge in forming the cluster was “convincing longtime parishioners that the three parishes would not lose their individual identities,” Bender said. “I can only speak for myself when I say that as time goes by, it feels like we are definitely coming together and I don’t detect any bad feelings among the individual parishes of the cluster — just the opposite.” Her vision for the cluster “is that in the years to come we will continue to grow together and will think of ourselves as one.”
Michel envisions the cluster remaining a cluster. “We will eventually have all the funds combined under one account. Keeping track of three sets of books is very labor intensive. NONE of these three parishes wants our cluster broken up, so combining the finances will solidify this union. I firmly believe we will continue to have our own ‘fundraisers’ for the good of each parish.”
Father Roush appreciates what clustering has done for the three parishes. However, “When you cluster, you still have three separate entities. You’ve got three parish councils, three finance offices, three people taking care of all of these same things in three different places.” The pandemic has compounded the challenges. “I have never felt so pulled in so many different directions in all of my life,” he said.
Yotty said someone approached him recently regarding cancellation of each parish’s fall festival because of the pandemic. If the parishes eventually merged, would that lessen the socialization that occurs naturally at the physical location of each parish? How would a merger affect separate fundraising events? “We’re looking for the diocese’s direction,” Yotty said.
“Parishioners have a sense of identity that they fear they will lose if their parishes merge,” Father Roush says. He encourages parishioners to focus on growth. “My focus is not to close any churches. That is not the intent of anything we are doing in this cluster.”
He views the situation from a historical and practical standpoint. “We’ve dated each other for 20 years. We have these three different entities working separately. What happens if we merge one finance office, one set of books, one ADA (Annual Diocesan Appeal), one bookkeeper and business administrator?”
“All of the supplies would be ordered from one place, one location for all three churches. We have already combined a lot of this — we have one parish council with representatives from each parish on it. Since I’ve been here, and the (collaborative) work we’ve done to this point, the average parishioner would not notice any change if we were to merge.”
The combined parish council “has voted unanimously that we need to check into merging,” Father Roush said. “Merging is something I’m a real proponent of because of the time it takes for me to manage three entities versus one.”
Faith formation is another aspect of parish life that would benefit from a merger, Father Roush believes. “Using the same lesson plan, same materials, and following the same format — that’s been a challenge (with the cluster).”
The Mass schedule would not change, if the parishes were to merge. Father Roush celebrates daily Mass on alternating days at the parishes and on Saturday at 5 p.m. in Wellman, and on Sunday at 8 a.m. in Richmond and at 10 a.m. in Riverside.
“The time dispensed just on the business side of things to make the cluster work would be minimized,” Father Roush said. “It would give me more quality time with parishioners. … When we’re all together, we’re unified and can do marvelous things together.”