Over the past few years, the Diocese of Belleville has begun a process known as the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring for the Catholic churches of southern Illinois.
This plan addresses several issues the Diocese has recognized over the years including priest shortages, schools struggling to stay open and parishes dealing with financial issues.
In letters over the past few years, beginning with an initial one in August 2011, Bishop Edward K. Braxton has addressed the sensitivity of this issue and how the Diocese can help parishes best plan for their future long-term.
For Catholic churches in Monroe County, this plan means partnerships amongst churches that are close to each other and the suppression of Immaculate Conception Parish in Madonnaville.
Several area churches will partner with other churches. These include a partnership between St. John the Baptist in Smithton and St. Michael in Paderborn; a partnership between St. Patrick in Tipton, St. Mary in Valmeyer and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Renault; a partnership between St. James in Millstadt and Holy Family in Cahokia; and a partnership between Immaculate Conception in Columbia and Sacred Heart in Dupo.
Immaculate Conception in Madonnaville will merge with Ss. Peter & Paul in Waterloo. The last mass in the Madonnaville church building will occur Sunday, April 27, and parishioners will have the option to join Ss. Peter & Paul or another area church after that date. The building will be used as a chapel for occasional use.
“We’ll have one bigger parish instead of the two separate ones before,” Fr. Osang Idagbo of Ss. Peter & Paul said. “We’re hoping they’ll join us, but they’re free to choose where they want to join.”
Fr. Idagbo said he has seen “mixed feelings” when it comes to the merger because many members of Immaculate Conception in Madonnaville grew up in that parish.
He said the church is made up of only about 21 families, and a lot of people are unhappy.
“They understand that there’s a need to do this, but they would change it if they could,” he said.
Fr. Idagbo said there is a possibility mass times could change along with activities to accommodate the merger.
“We haven’t fixed that yet though, so that will come in the future,” he said. “Our parishioners are ready to welcome new members.”
He doesn’t anticipate any conflicts arising because of the merger, because all parties involved understand the necessity of it.
“We’ve taken a lot of time to explain this in several meetings,” Fr. Idagbo said. “They know this is coming and I think it will go smoothly.”
The Reverend Monsignor John T. Myler, Vicar Forane, a member of the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring committee and a spokesperson for the Diocese, said the Diocese asked each group of parishes in these partnerships how they will best be served when there is only one priest for several parishes.
“Many of the partnerships have begun to answer this question carefully and creatively,” he said. “The need for these changes is apparent to most people. Most parishes have been very cooperative in planning their own future – and the future of the Catholic Church here in southern Illinois.”
The changes across county Catholic parishes will not take place all at once, but several area parishes have already seen some changes.
Msgr. Myler said the parishes are working on plans for their own futures, and the bishop will help them implement the changes that need to be made.
“It’s not the Diocese closing or merging parishes,” Msgr. Myler said. “It’s the parishes themselves deciding what realistically must be done.”
Partnerships like Immaculate Conception in Columbia and Sacred Heart in Dupo outlined a final draft plan in December.
Fr. Carl Scherrer of Immaculate Conception and Fr. Paul Wienhoff of Sacred Heart began a series of meetings last spring, with committees from each of their churches to figure out this plan and what it will look like in the future when there is only one priest to serve both parishes.
It breaks down the partnership’s plan into categories like worship, faith formation, outreach and administration, and includes what the two parishes are already doing together and how they are planning for the future.
“Our strategy is that we’re already doing some things together and being good neighbors,” Fr. Scherrer said. “We’re trying to do more of that so if something does happen suddenly and we share a pastor, we’re not strangers.”
Fr. Scherrer said their partnership is unique because Immaculate Conception in Columbia’s former partner parish, St. James in Millstadt, is partnered with Holy Family in Cahokia, where Fr. Wienhoff is pastor.
“It’s almost like a four-parish partnership because of the priest situation,” he said. “All four of our parishes kind of help each other out.”
Fr. Scherrer said the number of active priests in the Diocese has dwindled considerably over the years, with only four young men in the seminary right now.
“When I was a freshman in high school, we had 72 seminarians in my class,” he said. “We just have to learn how to do with fewer priests, unfortunately.”
Msgr. Myler said the bishop has called this plan not only a reconfiguration, but also a renewal.
“Catholic parishes large and small should always be ready for renewal — to preach the Gospel with new vigor, to sanctify its members, to reach out more effectively to others,” Msgr. Myler said.