METHUEN — The Revs. Bill Waters and Thomas Casey, Augustinian friars who have been serving Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, will be leaving in June.
The parish will remain open with a priest from the Archdiocese of Boston taking care of the spiritual needs of the congregation, which worships out of St. Theresa Church at 22 Plymouth St. in Methuen and St. Augustine Church at 128 Ames St. in Lawrence.
"It was a difficult decision to make, but decreasing numbers as well as the aging of our friars has forced this decision on us," the Rev. Donald Reilly, prior provincial, wrote in a letter published in the church bulletin.
"I promise that we will do our best to help you," said Reilly, who is stationed in Villanova, Pa. "I ask that we pray for and work with each other so that this transition can renew the spirit and the hope that is a part of your Christian vision of a vibrant, active and welcoming parish community."
There are 211 men in the religious order and they have an average age of 65, said the Rev. Kevin DePrinzio, vocation director for the Augustinians. He is also stationed in Pennsylvania.
Of the 211 men, all of whom live on the East Coast, eight are in their 30s, 18 in their 40s, 46 in their 50s, 58 in their 60s, 55 in their 70s, 22 in their 80s and four are in their 90s.
He said 16 priests have died in the last two years and, although there won't be an ordination until this summer, he has talked to more than a dozen men interested in joining the priesthood.
"It sounds kind of bleak, but there's a lot of possibilities because I've seen an interest, maybe because this generation is very focused on service," said DePrinzio, who at 31 is one of the youngest priests in the order.
This summer, the Augustinians will ordain two men, including Jorge Luis Cleto of Lawrence. DePrinzio does not know where the two new priests will be assigned.
The Rev. Bill Waters, pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel, does not know where he and his assistant are going, either, but he is happy the parish will remain open.
"It was important to get across to parishioners that there will be a full-time pastor, not just a part-time or someone on the weekends," Waters said.
He said some members have gone through several transitions, including the merger of St. Augustine in Lawrence and St. Theresa in Methuen, which created Our Lady of Good Counsel in 2000. The parish uses both churches to hold services.
Having the Augustinians withdraw from the parish is another blow to members, some of whom joined Our Lady of Good Counsel after the closing of their own churches, including Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Methuen; and St. Francis, St. Anne and Sacred Heart, all in Lawrence.
Our Lady of Good Counsel serves 1,256 families from West Methuen and the Tower Hill section of Lawrence.
"I feel badly for these people because this is another transition for them," he said. "That's why I'm thrilled that the archdiocese is sending a priest and the parish is staying open."
Parishioners, such as Kathy Clemmer of Methuen, agree.
"I have mixed feelings because I understand the reason why they are leaving," said Clemmer, who joined the parish in 1986. "I didn't know about the Augustinians until I moved here from the Midwest, and I've learned a great deal about them.
"I'm going to miss their theology and spirituality. I also appreciate their intellectual aspect. They are very well-educated men, yet they can speak to those of us in the pews."
The Augustinians' decision to pull out of Our Lady of Good Counsel did not come overnight.
Waters said area Augustinians met several times over the summer to discuss the diminishing number of priests, their advanced ages and where they are most needed.
In October, Reilly wrote to Cardinal Sean O'Malley with the Augustinians' decision to withdraw from Our Lady of Good Counsel and turn over the two churches and other parish properties to the archdiocese.
In addition to Massachusetts, Augustinians serve in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, New York and New Jersey, as well as Japan, South Africa and Peru.
"We were looking at our commitment and re-evaluating where we should continue to serve," said Waters, who has served 24 of his 36 years as a priest at St.Augustine, St. Mary of the Assumption, also in Lawrence, and Our Lady of Good Counsel.
The Augustinians are one of several religious orders that have withdrawn from local parishes over the past two decades due to fewer men joining the priesthood and aging priests. Others include the Franciscans, who served at Holy Trinity, and the Marist, who ministered at Sacred Heart, St. Anne in Lawrence, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Theresa in Methuen.
The Augustinians had a strong ministry locally, including staffing the former Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Laurence O'Toole and Immaculate Conception, all of Lawrence, and Austin Prep in Reading.
Our Lady of Good Counsel is the second parish the Augustinians have withdrawn from in Greater Lawrence. Priests withdrew from Holy Rosary Church in 1999.
Now, the only Augustinian presence in Greater Lawrence is at St. Augustine in Andover with four priests and a religious brother; five active priests and a retired priest at Merrimack College, including the interim president, the Rev. Joseph Calderone; a full-time priest, and a part-time assistant at St. Mary of the Assumption in Lawrence.
There are others not working in parishes, including the Rev. Peter Gori, chaplain to the Sisters of Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen, who also serves on the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal, and the Rev. Albert MacPherson, who leads a healing ministry.
"I have mixed emotions," Waters said. "It's painful and sad, but that's the reality of the church today. I'll miss the relationships with people I've made over the years."
Despite having to leave Our Lady of Good Counsel, the Rev. Jim Wenzel, an Augustinian priest for 58 years, remains hopeful about the order's future.
"I'm saddened about Our Lady of Good Counsel, but this is a new time and a new church," said Wenzel, director of the Center for Augustinian Studies and Legacy at Merrimack College.
"We can't clone priests, but I think we'll come out of this," said Wenzel, who served at St. Mary and St. Augustine in Lawrence and St. Augustine in Andover.
Time line of Augustinians in Greater Lawrence
1846: Built wooden church for Immaculate Conception parish, Lawrence
1852: Founded St. Augustine, Andover
1854: Built new Immaculate Conception Church, Lawrence; razed in 1991
1868: Protectory Mary Immaculate built in Lawrence as an orphanage and home for invalids.
1869: St. Michael Church, North Andover, dedicated.
1870: St. Patrick Church in Lawrence dedicated
1871: New St. Mary Church, Lawrence, a Gothic-style edifice made out of New Hampshire and Maine granite is dedicated
1878: St. Augustine Church, Lawrence, is erected
1880: St. Mary opens new school in Lawrence.
1887: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary begins to serve German Catholics, Lawrence. Augustinians withdraw in 1983
1897: Building of St. Monica Church, Methuen
1898: Shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel is built next to St. Mary Church, Lawrence
1901: Allowed members of St. Anthony Maronite church to meet at St. Mary, until the Lebanese community built their own place of worship in 1903 in Lawrence.
1902: Formed St. Joseph Melkite for Lebanese, Lawrence.
1902: St. Rita School for boys opens, Lawrence.
1903: Helped construct St. Francis, for Lithuanian Catholics, Lawrence
1905: Sts. Peter and Paul church for Portuguese
1908: Completed St. Lawrence O'Toole Church, Lawrence, closed in 1980
1922: Spearheaded a new building for St. Augustine in Lawrence along with a school.
1947: Founded Merrimack College, North Andover.
1961: Founded Austin Prep School, Reading and staffed the school until 1992.
1991: Archdiocese of Boston lets Augustinians use St. Anne Church, Lawrence, for its Hispanic ministry.
1995: Cost of maintaining St. Anne and St. Mary churches was too much and Hispanic Catholics moved to St. Mary Church.
1999: Pull out of Holy Rosary Parish in Lawrence after 95 years of service.
2008: Pull out of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Methuen.