Pella, Oskaloosa parishes learn from each other, build relationships

Father Tom Spiegel, center, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa, presided at a joint Mass for the Oskaloosa and Pella parishes at Nelson Pioneer Farm in Oskaloosa in June 2008. At left is Deacon Don Efinger of St. Mary Parish in Pella, and at right is Father Dennis Hoffman, pastor of the Pella parish.

By Celine Klosterman

In the western part of the Davenport Diocese, two parishes named after Jesus’ mother stand about 20 miles apart.  Each of them — St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa and St. Mary Parish in Pella — has a resident priest. Each has an active congregation of 300-400 families that welcomed at least 17 new Catholics last year through baptisms or professions of faith.

And each parish, in multiple ways, is collaborating with the other. Parish leaders say they do so not out of immediate need, but out of desire to prepare for a future with fewer priests and because the parishes benefit.

Since several Pella and Oskaloosa Catholics began meeting three years ago to discuss ways to work together, the parishes have shared a staff position, held joint Masses, retreats and social events, and shared operational strategies and advice. Doing so has helped parishioners expand their knowledge, increase their sense of church community and form new relationships, they say.

“One of the biggest benefits has been getting to know each other and learning from each other,” said Deacon Don Efinger of St. Mary’s in Pella. He’s among parish council members, trustees and pastors from the two parishes who have met three to four times yearly since early 2007, after the Oskaloosa parish held a retreat exploring how to keep St. Mary’s viable amid declining numbers of priests. The Diocesan Planning Commission projects that more than twice as many priests in parish ministry will reach retirement age as will be ordained by 2020.


After that retreat and a discussion with Bishop Martin Amos about long-term planning for the parish, Oskaloosa Catholics met with Pella parishioners to discuss collaborating on some ministries. Two years earlier, the diocesan Living the Faith Task Force had proposed clustering the Oskaloosa parish with St. Mary’s in Pella.

“We all just felt that if this was going to happen, we should start working together now, rather than later,” said Marie Ware, a former trustee for St. Mary’s in Oskaloosa. She resigned in April because of a move out of the diocese. “We wanted to come together not as strangers, but get to know each other and be proactive.”

Building community

Parish leaders were initially “tentative,” said Deacon Efinger and Angela Shaw, an Oskaloosa trustee. But tension eased as members of each parish got to know each other. Early in the process, Sean Tehoke, then a part-time youth minister for St. Mary’s in Pella, began working part-time at the Oskaloosa parish as well. In February 2008, Pella Catholics who’d participated in WATCH (We Are The Church) retreats at their church helped parishioners in Oskaloosa facilitate the first of two such retreats there. Friendships formed between members of each church as a result, said Pella parishioner Lowell Van Wyk, who saw the retreats as a way to build inter-parish community.

Ware and Deacon Efinger said they noticed signs of community building during a later joint parish effort. In June 2008, the two parishes celebrated Mass together. Father Tom Spiegel, pastor of St. Mary’s in Oskaloosa, was the main celebrant; Father Dennis Hoffman, pastor of St. Mary’s in Pella, concelebrated; and Deacon Efinger assisted.

Most Catholics at the Mass initially gathered with members of their own parish, Deacon Efinger recalled. But among Pella and Oskaloosa parishioners who’d taken part in the joint retreat, “everybody was hugging and saying, ‘How’ve you been?’” Ware said.

A second joint Mass was celebrated in September 2009 in Pella. “Both pastors thought it would be a good idea to continue to bring the people together and make them feel comfortable with going to Oskaloosa or Pella if they want,” Fr. Hoffman said.

Plans for the joint Masses, as for the shared retreats and staff position, came from regular meetings of each parish’s leaders. But Ware and Deacon Efinger said some of the biggest benefits of the meetings have been simply learning from members of the neighboring parish.

“We talk about parish operations: What’s your staffing level? Do you pay your custodians or use volunteers? How do you do your bookkeeping services?” said Ware. “We bounce ideas off each other.”

But collaboration between two active parishes can be challenging. “Any partnership is hard,” she said. “It’d be easy to let something go, to say our schedules just don’t work. You need to be really committed to it, just like in a marriage.”

“You have to be inventive,” Shaw said. “You have to be willing to meet more than halfway.”

‘We’re all in it together’

But the benefits are worth the effort, parishioners said. Tina Layman, a member of St. Mary’s in Oskaloosa, said collaboration between the two parishes has made her feel more comfortable taking part in activities at St. Mary’s in Pella. She lives in New Sharon, a town about the same distance from both parishes. Since meeting some Pella parishioners at an inter-parish WATCH retreat, she’s felt more at home taking part in events with the Pella parish such as Advent by Candlelight, an annual dinner and spiritual reflection.

After helping coordinate the evening a couple years ago, she invited several fellow Oskaloosa parishioners who’ve since attended it. “It builds a greater Catholic community this way,” she said.

“Bringing together our parishes reminds us that our local church is part of the global Church,” Pat Bortscheller agreed. He is a Pella parishioner who has worked with Oskaloosa Catholics on joint WATCH retreats. 

That sense of unity can benefit any parish, Ware said. “There will always be people who wonder, why do we collaborate? We’re big enough; we don’t need to.” But even if the Pella and Oskaloosa parishes don’t cluster in the future, “we have lost nothing. We’ve only gained relationships.”

The parishes’ relationship is so supportive that St. Mary’s in Oskaloosa donated funds to the Pella parish last year as it was building a new church, Deacon Efinger said. Members of both parishes have supported each other at funerals, weddings, parish missions, Bible studies, youth events and the dedication of the new Pella church, he added. “That shows how close we have become. Our theme has seemed to be ‘unity is not an option.’”

Shaw sees potential for the parishes to do even more together in coming years, such as sharing a bookkeeper and combining other business-related efforts. And she hopes such collaboration may make St. Mary’s in Oskaloosa a more appealing parish for priests to serve after Fr. Spiegel retires next year.

“All parishes have to be seriously looking at the shortage of priests to see how we can best minister to our people,” Fr. Spiegel said.

“What we do between these two parishes is just a beginning,” Ware said. Other parishes “may be amazed at what could come out of talking to each other. We all get very connected to our own parishes, but we are all one holy, Catholic and apostolic church. Whether your parish has 1,000 families or 200 families, you still have the same concerns: We need to do more fundraising, we need more volunteers. So the great thing about getting to know more people is you find out we’re all in it together.”

Collaboration in the Grinnell Deanery

Here are some other examples of collaborative efforts that parishes and parishioners in the Grinnell Deanery have shared.

• Clergy and lay ministers gather at deanery meetings regularly.

• Sacred Heart Parish in Newton and Immaculate Conception Parish in Colfax share baptismal preparation classes.

• Lay directors from St. Anthony Parish in Knoxville and Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher meet twice yearly; parishes take turns having Easter vigil Mass.

• St. Patrick Parish in Brooklyn and St. Bridget Parish in Victor: shared RCIA program, first Communion and confirmation retreats. Easter vigil and Christmas Masses rotate between parishes.

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