By Yadira Betances
---- — METHUEN — St. Monica and St. Lucy churches are among the first 12 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston chosen for the Phase 1 implementation of the Pastoral Plan that would group the 288 parishes of the archdiocese into approximately 135 collaboratives.
“This is a restructuring of how to best serve the parishes,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, director of Pastoral Planning for the Archdiocese.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley suggested the collaboratives to address the shortage of priests and encourage Catholics to return to church. O’Malley created a 20-member planning commission and named priests, bishops, deacons and lay people to serve, including the Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Lawrence and Craig Gibson, Catholic chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital.
After announcing the collaborative in Methuen, the Rev. Richard Burton, pastor at St. Lucy and the Rev. Patrick Armano at St. Monica had to resign from their posts in order to shed appearances of favoritism. Application for pastors of the St. Lucy/St. Monica is open to all priests of the archdiocese including Burton and Armano, and are due on Jan. 29.
A new pastor will be named in March.
The collaborative will have one pastor who will work with one pastoral team, made up of priests, deacons, lay ministers, members of the pastoral and finance council. The team will develop a pastoral plan for their collaborative, focusing on serving the needs of the parishes in their particular collaborative and advancing the mission of the New Evangelization. At the core of the collaborative is evangelizing as called by Pope Benedict XVI.
Training has already started at the Pastoral Center in Braintree. On Wednesday, there were talks on the founding of the church, the history of evangelization, prayers, sacraments and grace. On Thursday, Soper had an informational meeting at St. Monica Church and listen to people’s thoughts and concerns.
“It was an invitation that was delightfully accepted,” Gibson said. “This is a labor of love so that we can deliver to our shepherd an unprecedented decision. This is work for the future of the archdiocese that will have a profound impact on the evangelization of the church; it’s renewing and refreshing.”
Gibson, chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital since 2010, said in addition to the different gifts and talents brought by members of the commission, they first relied on prayers and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Among the questions raised by members of St. Lucy during community meetings include who’s going to be the pastor, time of the Masses and the future of their church.
“Catholics are very traditional and they don’t like change,” Rev. Burton said. “They are very happy with St. Lucy and they just fear change. I think they are looking at past reorganizations activities in the archdiocese and want to make sure their faith home is maintained the way they’re use to.”
St. Monica has 2,100 families on its roster. St. Lucy Church has 1,800 families with a large number of elderly Italians and young adults who have returned to the church, Rev. Burton said.
“They’re coming back because they are being spiritually fed here and that’s what they crave,” he said, adding he does not believe teaming St. Lucy with St. Monica will drive people away from the church.
“Change always angers some and excites others. In the end, it will be a positive that will lead to a tremendous growth and evangelization,” Rev. Burton said.
Priests discussed the proposal with parishioners, surveyed them on the proposal and sent letters to the archdiocese.
While the parishes will be twined, each will maintain its own identity within the assigned collaborative, retaining its canonical rights, its buildings, its financial assets and obligations.
The formation of the parish collaboratives will be phased in over the next five years.
Soper said the first phase represents a cross section of the archdiocese both geographically and demographically and includes rural, suburban, and urban parishes.
The archdiocese serves the spiritual needs of 1.8 million Catholics in 288 parishes.
Area Catholics are no strangers to mergers. In 1998, the Archdiocese closed St. Rita, St. Michael and St. George churches in Haverhill and merged them into the St. Joseph Church building, renaming it All Saints Parish.
In 2007, St. Patrick Church in Groveland merged with Sacred Hearts Church in Bradford, and both church homes remained open.
In Methuen, Our Lady of Good Counsel parish was created after the merger of St. Augustine in Lawrence and St. Theresa in Methuen. St. Mary’s in Rowley with St. Mary’s in Georgetown. In Amesbury, Holy Family Parish formed in 1998 when Sacred Heart and Saint Joseph.
What’s different this time around is that churches will not close.
“This is not about closing them, the plan is about evangelization. If we close churches, then the plan didn’t work,” Soper said.