By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Some parishes in the Diocese of Davenport have merged, others have clustered and some involve a combination of both. Still other parishes collaborate with one another. How do these forms of working together differ? Here is a look at the experiences of one parish that merged five years ago and clusters with two other parishes.
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
Earlier this month, parishioners enjoyed cupcakes inscribed with the number “5” to celebrate the merger that created Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Lost Nation five years ago. “Nothing makes people happier than food,” quipped Colleen Burke, a parishioner who also coordinated the month-long spiritual bouquet to commemorate the fifth anniversary.
“The parish council and Father Francis (Odoom) worked very hard for us to come together as one,” she said. “We have celebrated every year since the merger,” said Rosanne Wisor, a parish trustee. She described the process as similar to merging a business or blending a family. “All of those will have growing pains. Out of those growing pains, healing starts so you can take the next steps.”
Wisor and her husband Paul belonged to the former St. James Parish in Toronto, which merged with Sacred Heart Parish in Lost Nation to form Our Lady of the Holy Rosary (OLHR). The parish clusters with Sacred Heart Parish in Oxford Junction and Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound.
She sees greater strength in the larger congregation, with more opportunities to tap into the time and talents of parishioners, development of a stronger faith formation program and other faith-building initiatives. Equally important, “I think we have to be considerate of our priests. We need to let our priests rest; we need to give them a break.”
“Basically, we’re good. It’s working,” said Jim Schroeder, president of the parish council. The merger process challenged the faithful, but “it’s keeping us open. Without it, we would have probably closed, at least one of us.” He believes the merger also helped financially.
Among the remaining challenges: the parish maintains four buildings — two churches and two houses. The Toronto church does not have a restroom, but the house on the property does, so it remains open. Celebration of the Mass alternates between Toronto and Lost Nation. Some parishioners still prefer to attend Mass in the church building of their former parish. Father Odoom, the parish’s pastor, has helped in trying to smooth things out, Schroeder said. “He’s a good listener. That’s what people really want.”
Father Odoom arrived in the middle of merger discussions. He saw his role as facilitator. “We painted a common vision of where we want to be as a church,” he said. “We rallied around the concept of the church as a family of God.”
Parishioners created a mission statement based on that concept: “A family of God constituted by the Holy Eucharist and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make God known, loved and served.” “Each family is called to be part of the bigger family of God,” Father Odoom said. “The rallying point was the Eucharist. We need to continue to announce the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ until he comes again.”
Parishioners formed a common pastoral council, a finance council and all of the ministries were reconfigured to “make sure we had members in all of these from the two churches,” Father Odoom said, “We emphasized our common solidarity as a family.”
At the beginning of each month, prior to the pandemic, parishioners gathered for table fellowship, such as a coffee hour after Mass in each of the church buildings. “That created some level of bonding for the families,” Father Odoom said.
Settling on a weekend Mass schedule proved to be the greatest challenge. Parishioners resisted forgoing a Sunday morning Mass but eventually accepted that decision because Father Odoom serves three spread-out parishes and presides at three Masses per weekend as the diocese permits. The majority of OLHR’s parishioners are farmers, so a 5 p.m. Saturday Mass seemed the best option, Father Odoom said.
“Clustering comes with challenges,” he admits. “Basically, we have members who are attached to a particular community more than another community.” He resides in Grand Mound, which is 18.5 miles from Lost Nation, 16 miles from Toronto and 26 miles from Oxford Junction.
To manage the cluster, he created a tri-parish pastoral council with representation from each of the three parishes, which meets twice a year. Each parish also has its own parish council. In the beginning, Father Odoom strove to attend each council’s meetings because “presence matters a lot, especially in the beginning.” The cluster also shares a secretary. “With clustering, you need an administrative assistant to take the pressure off of the priest,” Wisor said.
“One priest cannot do all of this work. I have my role to play, but the more we empower the people, the members of the family of God, the more they are able to do for the glory of God,” Father Odoom said.
He sees other blessings stemming from the merger. Small churches emphasize family. “We feel for each other. Whatever families are going through, we share that in common, we share that in prayer. There is a spirit of volunteerism. People rally around to get things done.”
When the derecho storm wreaked havoc on Iowa, Grand Mound parishioner Brian Robinson showed up at the church to cut large branches from a fallen tree and haul away the debris. “Churches in small communities like this have some form of closeness to the people, to the community.” The church shares its spiritual role in the greater community, as well.
Mergers and clusters will continue to be necessary until more vocations to the priesthood emerge, Father Odoom said. Meanwhile, mergers and clusters “sustain the mission of the church.”