Collaboration is a team effort

Players on the “Saints” softball team come from St. Mary of the Visitation Parish and St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa and participate in a church league in the city. Their team work is one example of collaboration between the parishes in the Ottumwa Deanery. (Copyright photo by Michael W. Lemberger)

By Barb Arland-Fye

OTTUMWA — The “Saints” softball players roar with laughter whether they win or lose a game, says Anna Hanson, who organized their team for St. Mary of the Visitation and St. Patrick parishes. Hanson recently finished a 12-year career as religious education director and youth minister for the Ottumwa parishes, and said participation in the church league is one more thing “that unites the two parishes.”

This year, the adult team draws together Anglos and Latinos, men and women ranging in age from their 20s to 50s. Playing ball together helps develop friendship and camaraderie between the parishes. “It’s a church league, so they all have to attend church to play. There’s a good mix of Hispanics and Anglos,” said Father Bernie Weir, pastor of St. Mary’s. “Yes, everyone wants to win, but you don’t have to be good ball players … no one will make fun of you just because you can’t hit the ball.”

Just as teamwork is essential for a softball team’s success — or at least its enjoyment of the game — collaboration is a crucial component in the vitality of Ottumwa’s Catholic community.

“The days of parishes being totally independent have been over for so many years,” Fr. Weir said. “We try to collaborate and coordinate all major events in Ottumwa. We share all of our major ministry programs. We’re lucky we live in the same town. Collaboration is a good thing and must happen. We are one, Catholic community no matter how many individual parishes we have.”


That’s a message the Diocese of Davenport hopes to convey as a new phase of planning for the future of the diocesan Church begins this fall. The process needs to involve as many parishioners as possible in planning for the future of their parishes, said Father James Vrba, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Solon and co-chair of the Diocesan Planning Commission.

Religious education leads way

In Ottumwa, collaboration between the parishes began with religious education more than a decade ago. Seton Catholic School serves both parishes. A faith formation program for children in preschool through high school also serves both parishes. Ottumwa, which previously had several parish schools, had been without a Catholic school after the parish schools closed. “After a hiatus of some years, the parishes opened Seton. That renewal has required strong parental involvement and fundraising and tuition costs that are the primary source of support for the school,” said Father John Spiegel, former pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa and St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield. “I think the experience of the school has led parishes to realize there are also areas where cooperation is essential for a high level of presentation in ministry. You can’t do it as well alone. As the number of priests has fallen, that has become a truer statement. Ottumwa at one time might have had 12 priests. Now you have two,” added Fr. Spiegel, now pastor of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City.

Shared Latino ministry

The influx of Latinos about a decade ago in Ottumwa challenged the parishes to work together to provide ministry that encompasses a multicultural dimension. Sister Irene Munoz, CHM, serves as the multicultural minister for the Ottumwa area, which has an estimated Latino population of 5,000 to 6,000 people. The Latino population is diverse, with people coming from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Columbia, Sr. Munoz said. “Even though we speak the same language, we have different cultural traditions and different idioms and phrases and you have to learn that. They have their own celebrations for their country. You have to learn that.”

As many as 450-500 Latinos attend the Spanish-language Mass at 12:45 p.m. on Sundays, Fr. Weir said. A charismatic prayer group meets afterward. St. Mary and St. Patrick collaborate to offer Spanish and bilingual classes for sacramental preparation, and they’ve just hired a bilingual religious education/youth minister, Eleazar Huerta.

Ottumwa’s shared Latino ministry branches out to other parishes to assist them in serving Spanish-speaking parishioners, Fr. Weir said. Clergy and laity who serve the Latino population in the diocese also meet once a month “to make sure everybody knows what’s going on in individual communities. So we can pass that information to our local communities. It helps, also, with issues someone is having.”

The ministry and faith formation efforts of the Ottumwa Catholic community are bearing fruit. Latinos are “learning about their faith and they’re being more active in the church,” Sr. Munoz said. “They’re claiming ownership of the church. That’s how I would see it. But I think it’s a good ownership.”

The Bloomfield compromise

Collaboration between the Ottumwa parishes is further impacted by St. Patrick’s sharing a pastor with St. Mary Magdalen Parish 19 miles away in Bloomfield. “You have two parishes that are rather diverse and distinctive in their size and, in a sense, their mission,” said Fr. Spiegel. The more urban St. Patrick’s has 550 families; rural St. Mary Magdalen, the only Catholic parish in Davis County, has about 50 families. The challenge is how best to serve the needs of both parishes.  Compromise is essential.

Thirteen years ago, Bloomfield parishioners and the pastor at that time agreed to have Mass every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. “That has worked for their households in a good and practical manner,” Fr. Spiegel said. It also helps to have a pastoral associate — Sister Trudy Tanner, OP — who serves both St. Patrick’s and St. Mary Magdalen.

“More pragmatic benefits come from St. Patrick and St. Mary working together. Those are the programs that work hand in glove. The Bloomfield/St. Patrick collaboration is more of an adjunct relationship,” Fr. Spiegl observed. “People recognize we need lay ministry where that is appropriate and we have to manage how we will use the ministries that demand a priest.”

Collaboration in the Ottumwa Deanery

Ministries shared with neighboring parishes:

• Sigourney and Keota parishes share RCIA, baptismal and marriage prep, confirmation, pianists/organist, guest speakers and Mass servers. Keota works with a nondenominational community youth ministry as well.

• Altar and Rosary Society members also work together, with Keota and Sigourney parishes taking turns inviting speakers to their programs, said Father Charles Fladung, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Keota and St. Mary Parish in Sigourney. “They’re realizing they need to work together.” Another collaborative effort he appreciates involves parents from Keota and Sigourney and outlying parishes who work together to organize the annual COR retreat for teens.

• The merging of the East Pleasant Plain and Richland parishes to form Ss. Joseph & Cabrini Parish was a collaborative effort — and was a new model for the area because of the employment of Shirley Van Dee as parish life administrator, Fr. Fladung said.

• Albia, Melrose, Georgetown and Lovilia parishes share RCIA and confirmation (countywide confirmation Mass).

“Traditionally we’ve done RCIA on a countywide basis, and it’s worked great,” said Sharon Crall. She is pastoral associate at St. Patrick Parish in Georgetown and the RCIA director and assistant religious education director at St. Mary Parish in Albia. “We do adult-education programs and the other parishes are always invited. When we combine programs and resources, we can enrich ourselves. We can be stronger. It can be a powerful experience. To have one or two kids in a religious education class can be challenging when other possibilities for sharing would enhance their faith formation,” Crall said. “With me working in two parishes, it’s natural to collaborate.”

Collaboration evolution:

Shortages of people.

Rural depopulation.

People, talent, brain and money drain.

Economic shift in priorities.

Collaboration challenge:

Due to geographic distances, not much opportunity remains in the deanery. “I think the Ottumwa Deanery was on the cutting edge of downsizing 20 years ago,” Fr. Fladung said. Priests are stretched because of the distances between parishes.


Priests say they need more support for emergency backup for illness, vacation or other emergencies.

Priests say they are being diminished and reduced to roles of delivering sacraments only.

Because of geographic distances, the priests do not think much more can be done in the deanery without additional parish closings, which would cause hardship no matter where it is done.

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