Moving along the road on a ‘Journey of Faith’

Mass times, travel distances and how to serve diverse populations are some of the issues to be hashed out as groupings or “families” of parishes meet to plan for a future with fewer priests and shifting rural and urban demographics.

The archdiocese’s “Journey of Faith,” an effort to help parishes prepare for that future while moving toward the goal of becoming missional communities, has seen 21 urban and 12 rural families of parishes assemble planning teams, including priests and representatives from each individual parish, that have begun the hard work of determining how to make that happen.

Planning team members from Omaha parishes St. Cecilia and St. Margaret Mary have been meeting for the past three months to discuss how the two parishes can work together and share resources and priests to best serve their congregations.

“I’m encouraged by the openness of both parish family teams to participate in the outline that has been provided by the archdiocese,” said Father Ralph O’Donnell, pastor of St. Margaret Mary.

“To an individual, everyone recognizes the need to collaborate in support of the priests and deacons who minister in the sacramental life of the Church,” he said.

All parishes throughout the archdiocese have been grouped into families of from two to as many as 12 parishes that generally will share one pastor and one or more associate pastor.

In the case of St. Margaret Mary and St. Cecilia parishes, each will have one pastor with a shared associate pastor, a pattern that will likely be followed in certain groupings of large urban parishes.

“We’re hoping to dovetail or (coordinate) ministries between the two parishes,” Father O’Donnell said, “sharing resources and incorporating opportunities for adult education speakers, resources for religious education, some of the things we haven’t decided on so far.”

“If there are particular ministries that exist in one parish, but not the other, we might incorporate a blend or collaborative perspective on some of those ministries,” he said.

Although team members are just getting to know each other within their family of parishes, Father O’Donnell said he expects momentum to build and to result in a combined faith community that’s “stronger together,” able to reach out to residents of their two central Omaha neighborhoods.


At the other end of the spectrum is a 12-parish group spanning parts of four northeast Nebraska counties.

For Father Mark Beran, pastor of St. Augustine in Winnebago, St. Cornelius in Homer, St. Joseph in Walthill and Our Lady of Fatima in Macy, planning for this family can seem overwhelming at times.

“A lot of the initial meetings were just getting to know our area, because I don’t think anybody in the group had been to all 12 churches,” he said.

And this group combines parishes with diverse congregations and needs, including St. Michael in South Sioux City, which serves a large Hispanic community, along with Father Beran’s small parishes serving Catholics on two Indian reservations, where poverty is prevalent.

Other parishes in this family include St. Patrick in Jackson, St. Mary in Hubbard, Sacred Heart in Emerson, St. John the Baptist in Pender, Holy Cross in Bancroft, Holy Family in Decatur and St. Joseph in Lyons.

“We’re just trying to grapple with balancing the needs of a parish like (St. Michael) that has 1,700 people on the weekends and the other 11 that (altogether) have about the same amount, if not less,” Father Beran said.

And, with 40 miles between the two most distant parishes, “we have to make sure we minister to all the souls in this big area.”

With distances a major consideration, thought is being given to delivering some programs such as religious education and adult formation within smaller parish clusters, or “hubs,” to minimize travel time for participants, Father Beran said.

“We can’t do it all in one place because there’s just too much distance,” he said.


An eight-parish family that also is dealing with the challenge of distance encompasses 1,400 square miles and spans parts of four counties in the western part of the archdiocese.

“When we have all eight parishes, we will functionally have a pastoral area that’s almost 10% of the land area of the archdiocese, said Father John Norman, pastor of St. Peter de Alcantara Parish in Ewing, St. John the Baptist in Deloit Township, St. Theresa of Avila in Clearwater, St. Boniface in Elgin, St. Bonaventure in Raeville and St. John the Baptist in Petersburg.

With travel distance being a key consideration, the group is wrestling with how to meet an archdiocese-required limit of only six weekend Masses but eight churches. And efficiently serving pastoral needs at area hospitals also is an issue when deciding where priests will live, he said.

Joining as one family with St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Neligh and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Tilden, both led by Father Patrick Nields, the group’s planning team is committed to having a “healthy and vibrant parish life” for all, Father Norman said.

“Our team has grown to work really well together,” he said. “The willingness to work together is very much grounded on an expectation or a hope that there’s a place for all of us in the future.”

“Some of our parishes started working together more closely in 2019,” Father Norman said, “so some of them are more familiar with what it looks like to work together.”

“We had to make some changes because the expectations around what the priest would always do, what always ended up on the pastor’s plate, were not realistic,” he said.

“And each of the parish communities has its own personality,” Father Norman said, “so that’s something that you take into account when you figure out how to work together.”


“But having a sense that we can grow and accommodate each other and work together, we have a sense that there is a future for us in this part of the diocese,” he said. “That’s something that gives people … gives our communities hope.”

All parish families are required to submit their plans to Archbishop George J. Lucas by Nov. 15, with implementation of the plans to begin next year.

“The real work begins after Nov. 15,” Father Beran said. “How do we communicate all that to our parishioners? How do we get them to start seeing the bigger picture? How do we help them through whatever changes might come to their parish?

“The transition is going to be as big or bigger than the planning itself,” he said.

And no one expects the road to be easy.

“Change can bring out anxiety, almost fear, about what’s going to be different” Father O’Donnell said.

“But as they’ve come to understand the invitation and purpose behind (Journey of Faith), I think people will recognize that a change needs to happen and they’ll be open and receptive to it.”

Sign up for weekly updates and news from the Archdiocese of Omaha!
This is default text for notification bar