Bringing parishes together is nothing new to Father Dennis Mancuso, the new pastor of Family 25 in Cattaraugus County.
“I have done a lot of this before in my former parishes,” he said, pointing out that all of his previous assignments had involved overseeing multiple parishes at one time. “So, I’m used to this.”
His experiences have helped draw three parishes into one united family that will share resources and ministerial programs, but it also showed him how much effort it takes to make things work well. “I think we’ve moving in the right direction,” he said. “There’s a growing understanding that we have to work together and our mutual survival depends upon working together.”
Father Mancuso has been dealing with the administration of the parishes, while other transitional team members work on the six pillars of Liturgy, Spiritual Life, Forming Disciples, Outreach/Inreach, Stewardship and Administration.
Family 25, which consists of Holy Name of Mary, Ellicottville; St. Philomena, Franklinville; and Our Lady of Peace, Salamanca, covers a lot of area in the Southern Tier. A drive between parishes could take up to 27 miles. That makes it hard for some of the older members to get out to early Masses. It also prevents the two priests serving the family, Father Mancuso and Father Moses Ikuelogbon, from spending time after Mass talking to the parishioners, as they have to run from one parish to the other to make it in time for the next Mass.
“A very important pastoral thing is talking to people while they’re there,” said Regina Kuhn, from Holy Name of Mary. “It’s very hard. We can’t fix it.”
One suggestion offered is to have “Come and Talk to Father Dennis” nights where Father Mancuso would spend time at each parish once a month just to meet with the parishioners.
The Family of Parishes model sees one or two priests serving a small group of parishes. The model keeps all the churches open to serve the local community even with just 121 active priests to serve the 161 parishes. To make this work, sacrifice is needed.
“Everybody is used to having a Saturday Mass, or at least two Sunday Masses. When you get down to where you don’t have the coverage, everybody has had to eliminate Masses. That’s been a big obstacle – trying to figure out what are fair times for everybody,” said Jeff Peterson, from St. Philomena’s, adding that Father Mancuso and Father Ikuelogbon are “running ragged because they’re trying to cover everything.” Deacon Mark Hooper and Deacon Michael Anderson also serve the parishes.
Peterson, who serves as finance committee chairman at St. Philomena’s, sees the other big challenge for the emerging family is figuring out how to share expenses. Each parish will still pay their regular bills, such as utilities, but they also have to determine how much each parish will contribute to the shared expenses, such as pay for the parish staff now that the family shares one office.
Kay Buffamante, a trustee at Our Lady of Peace, became a eucharistic minister and lector back when lay people first took on those roles. She’s been serving the parishes ever since.
Now as a member of the administrative pillar, she works collaboratively with the members of the other two parishes to create a consolidated look of the family, from producing one bulletin to sharing finances. She will also help get through the elements of organizational change that “will need to be in place in order for us to remain viable churches in our region.”
Her team has found a number of differences in the way each parish deals with staff issues such as employee responsibilities, vacation days, and pay.
“It probably feels like there are more differences than there are, but they’re hard,” she said.
Kuhn agrees. “Each church is unique in how they handle everything. We don’t have a lot of commonality,” she said.
Uniformity among the three parishes would make it easier for lay ministers to step from one parish to another to help out. If Communion can be distributed the same way in every church, a eucharistic minister can easily fill in at any worship site.
As one of six pilot families, the Cattaraugus family keeps working on smoothing out the rough edges of their new dynamic, trying to remind people that working together is a necessity for the survival of all the parishes in the diocese.
“My take with the people I’ve talked to is that they’re accepting of it. Most of them feel that you almost have to be accepting of it,” said Peterson.
“I think the thing our transition team keeps foremost in mind is our shared commitment to the Catholic faith and to doing our level best to keep a presence of that Catholic faith in our parish regions, because it has been shrinking,” said Buffamante.