As previously announced, Fr. Gary Tyman will be leaving Our Lady of Mercy Parish next weekend and the parish will not get a new resident pastor. Instead, Fr. John Gagnier, currently Pastor at Holy Name of Jesus will also become Pastoral Administrator at Our Lady of Mercy.
The Eastern Greece/Charlotte Planning Group consists of Holy Cross, Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lady of Mercy, Our Mother of Sorrows, St. Charles Borromeo and St. John the Evangelist. Fr. Tyman's departure will reduce the number of priests available to this group from eight to seven.
This reduction was foreseen by the group's current Pastoral Plan, but it was not supposed to occur until 2009 at the earliest. As far as I know no one at any of the six parishes has been told why Fr. Tyman will not be replaced. It has been suggested by various sources that unanticipated defections from the priesthood coupled with forced resignations have led to this particular staffing problem, but that is unconfirmed at this point.
The Plan Goes in the Wastebasket
In a move initiated by Fr. Alex Bradshaw of Our Mother of Sorrows the diocese has decided that Holy Name of Jesus and Our Lady of Mercy will each drop one of their weekend Masses. Fr. Bradshaw's concern was that the seven priests remaining in the group would not be able to cover the 21 currently scheduled weekend Masses. (I believe that seven times three still equals 21, but I suspect 3rd grade math might not be relevant here.) Fr. Tyman has told his parishioners that, in response to Fr. Bradshaw, he had suggested that all six parishes drop one Mass each, but that his counterproposal was rejected.
Weekday Masses at both parishes will also be cut drastically. Holy Name of Jesus will go from five to three, while Our Lady of Mercy will go from four to two.
It is important to note that the failure to replace Fr. Tyman with a resident pastor or parochial vicar flies in the face of both Bishop Clark's 2003 instructions to the EG/C Planning Group and the subsequent plan adopted by that group and approved by the Bishop a mere 30 months ago.
The Bishop's instructions read,
As the Diocese of Rochester continues to respond to a declining number of priests, we project that, during the 2004-2009 time period, eight priests will be available to serve within your six parishes, and then seven from 2009-2014. In your pastoral planning, please recommend how two and then one parochial vicar may best be assigned to help meet the sacramental and ministerial needs of your parishes. (emphasis added)
The plan as adopted and approved reads,
The Diocese has projected that 8 priests will be available to our planning group between 2004 and 2009 and 7 between 2009 and 2014. We expect that one priest will be specifically assigned to each parish, either as pastor or as sacramental minister when a pastoral administrator is leading the parish...
PRIEST ASSIGNMENT PLAN
Six of the priests will be assigned one to each of the six parishes (emphasis added)
Two Parishes About to Close?
Through June of 2000 Holy Name of Jesus and Our Lady of Mercy each had 4 weekend Masses scheduled, one on Saturday and three on Sunday. One of the Sunday Masses at each parish was covered by a Basilian priest. When the last of the Basilians left Aquinas in 2000 that assistance ceased and each parish had to drop one of its Sunday Masses. The consequences were both direct and dramatic.
At Holy Name of Jesus weekend Mass attendance immediately fell by 15%, while attendance at Our Lady of Mercy dropped by 9%. Similar losses were seen in the offertory collections at each parish. Our Pastoral Planning liaison told us that it was common for parishes that drop Masses to see an immediate decline in Mass attendance.
Now, with Mass attendance at both Holy Name of Jesus and Our Lady of Mercy running in the low 400s, an average loss of some 12% would mean another 50 or so fewer folks at Mass each weekend at each parish. It simply cannot be much longer before such a situation proves financially untenable.
Getting back to Fr. Bradshaw and Our Mother of Sorrows, one of their former parish council members has told me that the parish is currently running about $100,000 in the red. Another parishioner has mentioned that their full-time youth minister is fearful of job cuts and is circulating his resume among potential new employers. If all this is true - and both my sources are in positions to know whereof they speak - then it signals an impending financial crisis at Our Mother of Sorrows and would provide an extra motive Fr. Bradshaw not to want to risk the further hits to his budget that dropping a Mass would certainly cause.
Now it is, of course, unfair to impute motives to another individual. Still, it is curious that the first call for another parish to take a financial hit came from the pastor of a parish that has troubles of its own, and equally curious that that same pastor was most adamant that his own parish not risk any loss.
A Lesson To Be Learned
As one of the two dozen or so people who spent many long hours developing this plan I can't find the words to adequately express my surprise at just how cavalierly the diocese has discarded our work. The fact that this plan was approved by the entire Planning Group, all six parish councils and all six pastors or pastoral administrators - as well as the Bishop - seems to mean nothing at all to the diocese now.
I suppose this should serve as a warning to anyone tapped on the shoulder by his or her pastor and asked to serve on a Pastoral Planning Committee: While you may receive copious, flowery thank-yous for all your work, do not be surprised by how lightly the diocese may ultimately treat your efforts.