Bishop issues decree establishing Divine Mercy Parish in Vineland

Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that the parishes of Saint Francis of Assisi and Immaculate Heart of Mary, both in Vineland, will merge and the new parish resulting from the merger, Divine Mercy Parish, will be established October 21, 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 p. 11).

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.

Reverend Monsignor Victor S. Muro, the current pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish and Priest Convener for the merger, has been named pastor of the new parish, which will serve about 1,700 families.  The seat of the parish will be St. Francis of Assisi Church and the parish boundaries will be those of the existing parishes.  Immaculate Heart of Mary also will be used as worship site for the new parish at the discretion of the pastor and based on the pastoral needs of parishioners.

The decree also designates Divine Mercy Parish as a personal parish for the Hispanic community in the City of Vineland.  Originally established as the Spanish Catholic Center in 1958, Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculada Corazon de Maria) was established as a personal parish to serve Hispanic Catholics in the city of Vineland on January 1, 2001.  St. Francis of Assisi was founded in 1961, formed from a portion of Sacred Heart parish in Vineland.

It is the third decree issued by Bishop Galante in a diocesan-wide reconfiguration of parishes.  In June, Bishop issued the decree establishing The Catholic Community of Christ our Light through the merger of St. Peter Celestine and Queen of Heaven parishes in Cherry Hill, effective July 29.  In July, Bishop issued the decree establishing the parish of Our Lady of Peace through the merger of Saint Mary, Williamstown and St. John Neumann, Sicklerville, effective August 5, 2009.

Following extensive study and consultation, Bishop Galante in April 2008 announced his intention to restructure parishes through merger and clustering in order 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.

Merger preparations for Divine Mercy parish began on November 5, 2008 when the Core Team met for the first time with their Priest Convener, Monsignor Muro.  Over the next ten months, the team met regularly to establish the administrative and pastoral structures for the new parish, as well as ministries and services that will address key pastoral priorities identified through parish Speak Up sessions, including youth and young adults and lifelong faith formation.

The Core Team also focused on the range of canonical, civil, administrative and pastoral considerations involved in merger, including setting new Mass and sacrament schedules, addressing staffing needs, tending to transition issues related to accounting and finance, establishing new pastoral and finance councils and developing a parish mission statement.

They also engaged the parishes in a variety of community building activities.   A joint Christmas Concert was celebrated in December.  Soon after, a combined Three Kings celebration and toy distribution event that traditionally had been held on the Feast of the Epiphany at Immaculate Heart of Mary was celebrated this year at Saint Francis of Assisi.   Almost 600 parishioners from both parishes jointed in the celebration.  At a Saturday workshop, Core team members presented a list of traditions, customs and values of each parish that would be brought forward to the new parish.

The parishes also came together for worship.  Following a joint liturgy meeting in February, ministry leaders from each parish planned a Good Friday procession and bi-lingual service for both parish communities.

After Core Team members were introduced to parishioners at weekend Masses, parishioners were invited to offer their suggestions and concerns with a suggestion/question box that was placed on display at each parish.  Parishioners also were engaged in the process of naming the new parish and were kept up to date on the progress of the Core Team through a “Core Team Corner” feature in church bulletins.

On  April 16, 2009, Monsignor Muro wrote to Bishop Galante to inform him that the Core Team had completed its merger preparations.

“We are confident that our communities are ready to merge and, therefore, respectfully request a visit and review of our merger plan by the Diocesan Merger Review Committee in preparation of the decree for merger,” wrote Monsignor Muro. “I must commend our Core Team for their 110% commitment to the merger and the merger process,” he added.

Core Team members were Josephine DeLaCruz, Celia Gutierrez, Wilma Lopez, Harry Paraison, Nick Possumato, Carlos Roman, Jean Smith and Joseph Trapani.

Eight diocesan reviewers from canonical affairs, liturgy, lifelong formation, temporalities, clergy and pastoral planning conducted an onsite visit on June 11, 2009 and affirmed the work of the Core Team.  During the summer months, the work of establishing the parish canonically and civilly was accomplished. Monsignor Muro said that both parishes will bring strengths to the newly merged parish. “Each parish has many gifts and will bring these to the new parish, thereby enriching the entire parish.”

Core Team member Joseph Trapani has been a parishioner of St. Francis since its founding five decades ago.  He said he’s witnessed steady decline.  “Years ago, we needed police in front of the Church to direct traffic on Sunday mornings.  You couldn’t get a seat. Our meeting rooms were booked five days a week.  But Vineland has changed. We’ve seen Mass attendance diminish greatly and our facilities are now underutilized.”

He acknowledged that some might feel a sense of loss with the merger, but this is not the predominant emotion. “Seeing us decline hurts me much more than losing what we had,” he said. “It’s human nature to want to keep what we had, but moves had to be made not only to keep going, but to move in a positive direction and to be active and alive. This is long-awaited.  We feel that this merger is a glove fit.”

Harry Paraison, a Core Team member who has been a parishioner of Immaculate Heart of Mary for more than ten years said, “The process of working with Core Team members from both parishes was very enlightening. We put aside differences and worked together, always patiently and with great respect and acceptance for each other and our opinions.  There was also great sensitivity to our traditions, worship and the different ways we give expression to our faith.”

Paraison said that feelings of loss were present, but subsided as the Core Team made progress in its preparations.  “Sometimes we have to lose something to gain something greater,” he said.   “By forgetting about ourselves, we were able to work for the larger community, with a focus on bringing about a more vibrant parish. We’ve been anxious for the decree and we’re very excited and ready to grow.”

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