Bishop Galante issues decree establishing Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown

Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that the parishes of Saint Mary, Williamstown and St. John Neumann, Sicklerville will merge and the new parish resulting from the merger, Our Lady of Peace, will be established August 5, 2009.

The announcement establishing the new parish was made in a formal decree, which is published in this edition of the Catholic Star Herald (see DECREE in News-Latest News July 3, 2009).

The decree states that consolidating the individual communities and uniting them as one new parish is necessary to provide more effectively for the pastoral needs of the faithful, to assure the vitality of parish life, to provide for a better stewardship of resources, and to provide for the optimum use of clergy, religious and lay personnel.

Accompanying the decree are instructions on the recourse process provided for in Church law to ensure that the rights of the faithful are upheld in the alteration of a parish.

Father Cadmus Mazzarella, the current pastor of St. Mary parish and Priest Convener for the merger, has been named pastor of the new parish, which will serve about 5,800 families (St. Mary’s currently has 5,000 families and St. John Neumann has about 800 families). The seat of the parish will be St. Mary Church and the parish boundaries will be those of the existing parishes.

“At this time of great promise for the Church, I thank our Priest Convener, Father Mazzarella, the Core Team members and all parishioners who assisted in preparing these parishes to unite. I also extend my prayerful best wishes to the faithful in this area of the diocese as they continue to collaborate together to build a vibrant faith community and to grow more deeply in the faith,” said Bishop Galante in a statement.

It is the second decree issued by Bishop Galante in a diocesan-wide restructuring he announced last year to address a decline in the number of diocesan priests available for ministry, shifts and changes in population, a decline in religious practice, the need to revitalize parish life and to advance pastoral priorities identified as most important by the people of the diocese. Many parishes also are struggling financially due to the changes in population and decline in mass attendance and lack the resources to provide needed ministries.

Last week, Bishop issued a decree establishing The Catholic Community of Christ our Light through the merger of St. Peter Celestine and Queen of Heaven parishes in Cherry Hill. Two other parishes have completed their merger preparations and have had onsite visits by the Diocesan Merger Review Committee. Decrees establishing these new parishes are expected later this summer.

Study and consultation lead to merger recommendation

Saint Mary Church and St. John Neumann Church are in two different counties (Gloucester and Camden, respectively), but are just 3.8 miles apart. St. Mary’s was first a mission of St. Joseph, Hammonton, before it was established as a parish in 1909 (the present church was built in 1956). Meanwhile, the St. John Neumann community was created in the early 1970s from a portion of St. Mary’s parish to serve the new Winslow Crossing community. Mass for the new community was first celebrated in a Winslow Township school, then Sicklerville. Following the canonization of St. John Neumann in 1977, the community became a parish on June 19, 1977.

With challenges facing parishes throughout the Northeast, the natural affinities that already existed between the two parishes and their shared history led the communities to recommend that they come together once again. In fall 2006, representatives from both parishes began to review spiritual reports, parish data, and demographic reports as part of the Gathering God’s Gifts parish planning initiative. Seeing the advantages of uniting the parishes, deanery planners in January 2008 recommended to Bishop Galante that the parishes merge in order to enhance parish life for parishioners in this area of the diocese.

Following consultation with the Diocesan Planning Commission in February 2008 and a formal consultation with the Presbyteral Council of the diocese in March 2008, Bishop Galante on April 3, 2008 announced his intention to merge the parishes. He heard again from the Presbyteral Council in May before issuing the decree this week.

Two communities, knitted together

The decree follows an extensive period of preparation that tended to the range of pastoral, civil and canonical steps necessary for merger. From October through late spring, Father Mazzarella and his Core Team worked to prepare the parishes for merger. Following an onsite visit by the Diocesan Merger Committee on June 1 confirming the parishes’ readiness to merge, Father Mazzarella wrote to Bishop Galante on June 5 requesting that he issue the decree establishing Our Lady of Peace parish.

“[S]ince October 2008, the Core Team representing the two parishes of St. Mary in Williamstown and St. John Neumann in Sicklerville have been working assiduously in the important task of merging these two communities into one. The work has been challenging and the hours long, but the fruit coming forth through this process, we believe is great and hopeful. Our Core Team believes that the two constituent communities of St. Mary and St. John Neumann have been joined and knitted together on every possible level—spiritually, pastorally, administratively and socially,” said Father Mazarella in his letter to Bishop Galante.

“As our preparations conclude, it is an exciting time, as parishioners from both parishes are looking forward to becoming part of the new community,” said Father Mazzarella. “The great advantages of uniting these parishes already are being felt, with more opportunities to grow spiritually, to be involved in ministry and in service to the community.

A focus on outreach and evangelization

The new parish is placing a strong emphasis on ministry to younger Catholics and to evangelization. The parish has just hired a full-time, paid youth coordinator to oversee the parish’s junior youth group (6th through 8th grades), high school ministry (grades 9-12) and young adult ministry (ages 18-25). A part time youth minister will assist with the high school program. In addition to the increased focus on youth and young adults, the parish this week added a full-time, paid director of evangelization.

“The Eucharist strengthens us to reach out to fulfill the Gospel mandate to evangelize and to serve others. Many people are waiting to be asked to come back to the Church or to return to a more regular practice of their faith. We have found that people are receptive and open but are never asked. Many times, they just need someone to reach out to them,” said Father Mazzarella. By uniting the parishes in this way, we have the ability now to support these new positions and to give these priorities the emphasis they deserve.”

Cecil Raymond, a parishioner of St. John Neumann for nearly two decades, served on the Core Team that helped ready the parishes for merger. “We wanted to create a more vibrant parish. We knew that the time would come when we would not be able to sustain ourselves. We knew that we were not able to offer the programs that are needed. Now, with the merger, we have created great opportunities for our people with facilities and programs we never had,” he said.

Raymond said that it became clear that there needed to be more focus on young Catholics and that joining the parishes would make this possible. “When youngsters get to eighth grade, they tend to move on. They really haven’t anything to come back to. But, when they’re in a parish like Our Lady of Peace, we’ll be able to hold on to the youth, the future of the parish.”

Coming together in order to thrive

Raymond said, “Parishioners have really come to understand and realize that the merger of the parishes is the best thing for the future. We might want to think only of ourselves, but we have to think of those coming after us. This has to be done if the Church is to survive.”

Core Team member Charlene Carlson has a unique perspective, having been a lifelong parishioner of Saint Mary’s before registering at St. John Neumann about ten years ago.

“It’s difficult for St. John’s parishioners, even though deep down we know it’s for the best. You’re used to the same thing, the same community, and the familiar faces. But we know we need better facilities and more ministries and activities to draw people in, especially young people. We have to have something for everyone if we are to thrive.”

The work of readying parishes to unite

On March 20, 2009, Father Mazzarella wrote to Bishop Galante to inform him that the Core Team, which had met 11 times since October 29, 2008, had completed its preparation work for merger.

In addition to civil and canonical considerations, the Core Team focused on laying the foundations for worship at the new parish, including the schedules for masses and sacraments, music ministry, RCIA, baptismal preparation, and the provision for Holy Communion to the sick and homebound.

The Core Team also worked on laying the foundations for pastoral ministries, including addressing the key pastoral priorities identified at Speak Up sessions: lifelong faith formation, youth and young adults, lay ministry, vocations, liturgy and compassionate outreach.

The Core Team’s preparations also included the care of temporal goods, such as facilities management, vendor contracts, budgeting and finance issues, human resources, information technology and real estate. In a merger, all assets and liabilities of the merging parishes follow parishioners to the new parish. Because each parish is separately incorporated under New Jersey law, all parish property and assets belong not to the diocese, but to the new parish.

Jane D’Ambrosio, Core Team member and a St. John Neumann parishioner for 22 years said, “It was an overwhelming challenge. Every member of the Core Team took on the challenge and worked diligently to bring both parishes together as one. Everyone used their expertise to complete each of the tasks, while taking every opportunity to reach out to parish members to make sure they were informed as we progressed on our mission. And, I think we did a good job.”

A new beginning

D’Ambrosio acknowledged the range of emotions she herself has experienced with the merger. “The merger itself hit me very hard in the beginning. I still have feelings for the Church, our parish and the priest we have now. It’s the same kind of feeling I had when I left a parish that I loved to join St. John Neumann when I moved to Sicklerville. But I grew to love St. John Neumann, and the same will happen here. It’s a new beginning.”

Charlene Carlson echoed the sentiment. “With the decree being issued, I am excited because I can see that our hard work has paid off. It will be great to be one rather than two separate parishes.”

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