Three parishes becoming one family
April 18, 2019
Three churches, same pastor, but now with a new name, worshipping and serving as one parish family.
As St. John the Baptist Parish in Fordyce, St. Joseph Parish in Constance and St. Boniface Parish in Menominee became one – All Saints Parish – July 1, parishioners took comfort knowing that the churches their forebearers helped build will remain open and much of parish life will continue as before.
To avoid future parish closures due to an expected shortage of priests, the parishes – under the guidance of their pastor, Father James Keiter – took the initiative to develop a plan to merge while preserving their unique histories, identities and features. Those include three cemeteries and a shared school, West Catholic Elementary School in Fordyce.
“If we’re going to have fewer priests, we have to make things more manageable for them, so we decided, let’s be ahead of the game,” Father Keiter said.
Father Keiter said the change will help him and the parish focus on important priorities.
“These changes will allow me time to do more adult formation, working with our archdiocese’s Evangelization and Catechesis office, forming our evangelization team or leading a Bible study,” he said.
“We have this incredible pastoral vision and plan to help people encounter Jesus, to form disciples and live mercy as one church,” he said. “What we’re doing locally helps demonstrate that ‘one church.’”
So meetings began last fall to explore the issue.
“The first question I posed to our parish council members was, ‘What does the perfect parish look like?’” Father Keiter said.
From those conversations, a long list emerged, including “to always have a priest, to have engaged parishioners, to have liturgies that are engaging, and that people feel the parish is a spiritual home,” he said.
The parish councils discussed how to achieve those goals while respecting the identity of the individual churches, but at the same time working more closely as one, he said.
“People are connected to those sites because of the sacraments – this is where they were baptized, where they were married, where their parents are buried – so we needed to respect that but look at different ways to administer and really be one church.”
The conversations started the process of drawing up a merger proposal that was presented early this year to Archbishop George J. Lucas.
The plan called for combining the three northern Cedar County parishes – each about four to 10 miles from the others – into a single parish with one parish council and one finance committee, reducing the number of meetings the pastor must attend and allowing him more time for priestly ministry.
“Father had great foresight and had already moved our parishes in that direction, combining programs like religious education and Life Teen,” said Jody Paulsen, a parish council member of the former St. Joseph Parish.
With the archbishop’s approval of the plan, town hall meetings were held early this year to discuss the proposal with parishioners and hear their concerns, she said.
Parishioners expressed uncertainty at first, but grew to accept the idea of consolidation, said Justin Holbelheinrich, parish council president at St. Boniface.
“This needed to be done if we were to maintain our church sites and be a viable parish,” he said. “Father had been planting the seeds for a while, so people became fairly comfortable. We’ve been doing a lot together anyway, supporting each other and working together as one big community.”
“We won’t see a whole lot of difference, and people feel better about it because we’ve had some control about how it will happen,” he said.
Financial considerations presented no problem because each parish is debt-free and the facilities are in good shape, Father Keiter said.
Each church will retain endowments for maintaining their cemeteries, he said. Other endowments, including two farms donated to St. Boniface and leased out to area farmers, will continue operating, with proceeds supporting the general budget.
Parishioners are viewing the change positively and the transition should be smooth, said Dave Loecker, president of St. John the Baptist’s parish council.
“We’re already sharing a secretary, our deacons, our pastor – things are already in place,” he said.
Mass times also will remain the same, and Father Keiter will continue to live at St. John the Baptist in Fordyce.
St. John the Baptist has 103 families, St. Joseph has 40 and St. Boniface 125. They shared common borders, he said, and people often travel to the different churches for Mass.
People from the three parishes already know each other well, Father Keiter said. “For a recent funeral at St. Boniface, probably 90 percent of the parishioners from St. John and St. Joseph were there.”
A new parish unity already was on display June 23 as St. John the Baptist Parish held its annual parish prime rib dinner in Fordyce and 250 people from all three parishes came to celebrate.
The parish merger will be officially celebrated with a Mass and a meal in November, near the Feast of All Saints, marking the parish’s new identity while recognizing the three saints for which the former parishes were named, Father Keiter said.