Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish unites three parish communities

Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that the parishes of Saint Luke (Stratford), St. Lawrence (Lindenwold) and Our Lady of Grace (Somerdale), will merge and the new parish resulting from the merger, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, will be established December 9, 2009.

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

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.

Reverend Joseph P. Capella, the current pastor of Saint Luke and Priest Convener for the merger, has been named pastor of the new parish, which will serve about 4,900 families. The seat of the parish will be Saint Lawrence Church, while the parish boundaries will be those of the existing parishes. Saint Luke Church also will be used as a worship site as needed by the new parish.

Reconfiguration to improve care to the faithful

It is the sixth decree issued by the Bishop in a diocesan-wide reconfiguration of parishes announced for the six counties of the diocese in April 2008. At the time, Bishop Galante said the intended reconfiguration was necessary to strengthen parishes, to revitalize parish life by advancing major pastoral priorities identified at Speak Up sessions, to improve spiritual care to parishioners by providing needed ministries, and to reverse downward trends in Mass attendance and sacramental practice.

The reconfiguration also seeks to address longstanding challenges that have affected dioceses throughout the Northeast United States. Many parishes in South Jersey are located in very close geographic proximity to each other in areas where population has diminished or shifted. These population changes have been exacerbated by a decline in weekly Mass attendance, from a high of almost 75 percent five decades ago to less than 25 percent now, resulting in fewer Catholics in pews and mounting financial struggles for many parishes.

Meanwhile, the number of diocesan priests available to serve in ministry has declined in this diocese and in dioceses nationwide. Scheduled priest retirements in the coming years will leave the Diocese of Camden with 85 or fewer diocesan priests in ministry by 2015, far fewer than the124 parishes in the diocese when the planning process began in fall, 2006.

Reconfiguration followed study and consultation

Bishop Galante’s April 2008 intention to merge the three parishes that will make up Our Lady of Guadalupe followed a period of study and consultation with deanery planners, the priest dean, the Diocesan Planning Commission and the Presbyteral Council of the diocese. All concurred that the individual parishes could be made stronger if they were united with other parishes.

Parishioners from each of the three parishes were represented on the Core Team that formed last fall to prepare the parishes to come together. Thirteen times over ten months, nine Core Team members worked under the leadership of their Priest Convener to complete the necessary administrative, pastoral, canonical and civil preparations for merger. On August 4, 2009, Priest Convener, Father Joseph Capella, wrote to Bishop Galante indicating that his Core Team had completed its work and requesting an onsite evaluation by the Diocesan Merger Review Committee to assess the parishes’ readiness to merge.

“I believe that through the continued guidance by the Holy Spirit our three communities will grow over the months and years to come into the spirited community of Catholic Christian faith envisioned by our Bishop and all those who want to be a part of this dynamic movement of the Catholic Church in South Jersey,” wrote Father Capella.

Parishes share common roots

The present three parishes are geographically proximate and share common roots. St. Luke and and St. Lawrence are just 1.4 miles apart and St. Lawrence and Our Lady of Grace are just 2 miles apart.

When St. Lawrence parish was founded in 1896, it encompassed Lindenwold, Pine Hill, Berlin, Somerdale, Gibbsboro, Clementon and Stratford. Our Lady of Grace began as a mission of St. Lawrence before becoming a parish in 1954. St. Luke followed in 1961.

Parishioners chose the name “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” patroness of the Americas, for the new parish. There already is a shrine in the Lindenwold church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and she enjoys a very strong devotion among the Spanish-speaking community in the area. The name was also favored by non-Spanish parishioners who felt the choice would be an expression of welcome to newly-arrived Catholics in the parish

Gratitude and hope

“We’re very thankful that we’ve come to this point of founding a new community of faith,” Father Capella said this week. “We’re also very hopeful for our future together.”

He said he understood that even though parishioners are looking forward to the merger, the process has been difficult for some. “We acknowledge and respect the feelings of those who may still be struggling with the need to merge the parishes because we individually can be at different places of acceptance. We hope that even though this is what some are feeling, we can still be one community of faith,” he said.

With this in mind, Father Capella said he and the Core Team made it a priority to listen to the needs of the people. “We spent a great deal of time just listening and being aware of the needs of the community and the new parish. Our entire strategic plan and vision seeks to be responsive to these needs.”

Benefits already seen

He said the consolidation of the parishes is already bringing benefits. A recent ministry fair was well attended. The uniting of the St. Vincent de Paul teams has improved its ability to serve clients. Previously, one chapter lacked cold storage, forcing clients to travel to two locations to meet their needs. “By coming together, we can now offer clients all services at one location. It’s much easier for the people we are helping.”

Youth and Young Adult ministries have been combined. The new parish will soon introduce intergenerational faith formation. Rather than focusing only on religious education of school-aged students, the new parish will provide whole family catechesis, so that all age groups have the benefit of faith formation.

The new parish also has hired a new full-time director of parish ministry. The director is currently enrolled in the diocese’s Lay Ministry Formation Program and will coordinate and oversee the various pastoral ministries of the new parish. “This will give our ministry efforts greater resources and more focus,” said Father Capella.

A fruitful coming together

Core Team member Tom Angelucci has been a parishioner of St. Luke, Stratford for more than 40 years. “I grew up at a time when the Church was expanding,” he said. “For many of us, the need to consolidate is a new experience. But, in a way, we’ve also come full circle, since at one time most of the people from Stratford went to St. Lawrence.”

As the former mayor of Stratford, he said he saw up close the impact as earlier growth waned and population changes began in the region. “I said ‘yes’ to being on the Core Team not because I don’t appreciate what we’ve had and want things to stay as they were. Yet, things can’t stay the way they were. It’s been reported ad nauseum that fewer people are going to church, especially young people. Everyone knew something had to happen and I wanted to be part of the work of creating the new parish.”

Jim Duffy of Somerdale became a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace in 1975. He said the Core Team worked well together. “If the fruitful coming together of Core Team members is any indication, then I’m really excited about the future of our faith community. It’s going to be super,” he said.

“Change can be difficult, but there are advantages to consolidating parishes, and not just economic. I think we’ll also begin to feel better knowing that churches will be fuller on Sundays.”

He said also that the new parish is reaching out to its Spanish-speaking parishioners. “I think we’ll be enriched by reaching out to the Hispanic community and through this outreach we’ll become one family,” he said.

Barbara Brennan, who has been a parishioner of St. Lawrence since 1973, said she had no idea that the work of the Core Team would be such an undertaking. “It was only possible because we all respected and listened to each other. Because we were so united, I think it helped the parishes themselves come together.”

She said a recent unity celebration exceeded expectations. “We were expecting about 100 people for a wine and cheese party. We had more than 250 parishioners come out. The choirs of the three parishes sang at the event. It was a huge success.”

Brennan said she is glad the parishes are coming together and parishioners from all three parishes have been eager to see this happen. “With a combined effort, we can better address spiritual needs—which are the first priority—but also the social and community needs of the people in this area of the diocese.” She said outreach to the infirm to help them get to Mass, more community building activities, and opportunities for socializing among parishioners will help strengthen the new parish.

A shared experience of communion

When he wrote to the diocese this summer after the Core Team completed its merger preparations, Father Capella thanked his Core Team “for their spirited and faith-filled efforts over this past year. From the very first gathering they said ‘yes’ first to God and the Church and then to their sisters and brothers in community. They were patient, skilled and attentive to the spirit of the process and understood their involvement as nothing less than a living out of their baptismal call. As a cleric, I was honored to minister with them and honestly felt as if the real spirit of the Church as envisioned by Vatican II was alive and well!”

He also thanked the staff, pastors and parishioners of the parishes. “Together we acknowledged our uncertainty of the unknown, our doubts and timidness of where God was leading us. No doubt there are challenges that lie ahead of us but I believe that we have a shared experience of communion and I’m sure the Holy Spirit will continue to call us to greater fidelity as we live into the experience of becoming a new community in God’s name.”

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