Bishop issues decree establishing Parish of St. Rita in Bellmawr

Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that the parishes of Mary, Mother of the Church (Bellmawr), St. Francis de Sales (Barrington) and St. Gregory (Magnolia) will unite and the new parish resulting from the consolidation, St. Rita, will be established May 19, 2010.

The announcement establishing the new parish has been made in a formal decree, which is published in this edition of the Catholic Star Herald.

It is the thirteenth decree issued by Bishop Joseph Galante in a diocesan-wide reconfiguration of parishes announced two years ago to strengthen parishes and improve pastoral care to the people of the diocese.

Father Carmel F. Polidano, who has overseen the consolidation as Priest Convener, has been named pastor of the new parish for a six year term.

The Parish of St. Rita, whose boundaries will be those of the three existing parishes, will serve about 2,700 families. The seat of the parish will be Mary, Mother of the Church. St. Francis de Sales Church also will be retained a worship site to serve the parish community.

Consolidation seeks to reverse downward trends

The consolidation seeks to reverse downward trends in religious practice by strengthening parishes, improving outreach, and providing a range of ministries that will better serve the needs of the people. The consolidation also addresses a decline in the number of diocesan priests available for ministry, as well as demographic and population change.

Catholics in the Bellmawr area were served first by St. Anne’s Westville and St. Teresa’s, Runnemede. Annunciation parish was established in 1951 and later, a portion of that parish and a portion from St. Francis de Sales were taken to form Mary, Mother of the Church, which was established in 1965. St. Francis de Sales, Barrington and St. Gregory, Magnolia, which formerly was a mission of St. Rose of Lima, Haddon Heights, were both established in 1955. The parishes were established at the very time the region experienced a boom in population, growing more than 140 percent in the ten years between 1950 and 1960, according to U.S. Census data.

Since then, the area of Camden County served by the three parishes—which are about 3 miles apart—has experienced significant population change (see chart, above). While the region experienced major population growth from 1950-1970, overall population has declined by 25 percent since 1970. The impact of population decline has been exacerbated by a concurrent decline in Mass attendance among Catholics, which peaked in the late 1950s at 75 percent and has since fallen below 25 percent. The two-fold impact of population decline and decline in Mass attendance means that there are far fewer Catholics in the pews—less than one third the number—in this part of the diocese than there were in 1970, when weekly Mass attendance was about 60 percent, a trend Bishop Galante is seeking to reverse.

Parish mission statement stresses unity, outreach

The Core Team met for the first time on November 11, 2008. A parish mission statement was drafted that stressed the centrality of Eucharist, unity and outreach: “The mission of the Parish of St. Rita is to embody, proclaim and cherish the essence of our Eucharistic Lord through our parish family with love, respect, unity and Catholic devotion and community outreach.”

By January 6, 2010, the last of the meetings, sixteen meetings had been held to accomplish the necessary administrative, pastoral, canonical and civil preparations for merger. A review by the Diocesan Merger Review Committee on March 11, 2010 found that the parishes were ready to unite.

With Jesus, everything is possible

On September 9, 2009 parishioners gathered for a Mass of Unity at Mary, Mother of the Church. Father Carmel in his homily stressed the importance of unity: “Pray that you always will be united with Jesus Christ so that you may be fruitful! Without Jesus, nothing is possible. With Jesus, everything is possible…If we follow the Lord Jesus, together we will do marvellous things,” he said. “Great things will happen when this merger takes place.”

After the Mass of Unity, parishioners proceeded to vote to name the parish St. Rita, after St. Rita of Cascia the Italian born saint (1381-1457) who bore two sons and suffered through a difficult marriage. After being widowed through the murder of her husband, she tried to enter the local convent, but was refused because she was a widow. After great prayer and perseverance, she eventually entered the Augustinian convent, where she lived a life of deep contemplation and prayer. She was bbeatified in 1626 and canonized in 1900. Her feast day—and now the parish feast day—is May 22.

We now become one

“We now become one. That has been our goal, to work together to become one Church, a stronger faith community, that will send forth the Gospel message and reach out with concern for every individual to ensure that their needs are being met. I hope and pray that St. Rita will intercede for us and that Jesus—who is the entire reason we are doing this—will unite us together to reach out to do good things for everyone, young and old, and every age in between,” said Father Carmel Polidano.

Core Team member Terry Brennan who has been a St. Gregory’s parishioner for ten years said, “I feel that this is a new beginning for our parish family, a time in which I feel we can join together to strengthen the church and to reach out to be more responsive to the needs of our parishioners and neighbors in bringing forth the love of Christ.”

He said the preparations to unite the parishes succeeded in large measure because the Core Team members worked so well together. “There was a great deal of prayer and cohesiveness. We respected one another and, with Father Carmel’s determination, we were inspired to get the job done together.”

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