Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that Queen of Heaven and Saint Peter Celestine parishes in Cherry Hill will merge and the new parish resulting from the merger, The Catholic Community of Christ Our Light, will be established July 29, 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, June 26, 2009)).
“[I]n response to the request of the pastor of these communities, Reverend Thomas A. Newton, to unite these parishes; the favorable advice of the Vicars Forane; and having listened to the opinions of the Presbyteral Council about the needs of the Catholic Faithful in this area of Camden County, I have determined that the pastoral care of these communities will be fostered best by consolidating these individual communities and uniting them as one new parish,” Bishop Galante announced in the decree. Father Thomas Newton, the current pastor of the communities and Priest Convener for the merger, has been named pastor of the new parish, which will serve about 3,800 families. The seat of the parish will be St. Peter Celestine Church and the parish boundaries will be those of the existing parishes.
“This is a time of great joy and rebirth for the Catholic faith community in this area of the diocese,” said Bishop Galante in a statement. “The work of addressing the great challenges facing the Church has been met with even greater faithfulness, zeal and love by the people of Queen of Heaven and St. Peter Celestine. I am grateful for the dedicated work of the Priest Convener, Father Tom Newton, and the Core Team and for the collaborative spirit and good will demonstrated by parishioners who have united in hope for a stronger Church and a better future.”
The decree states that consolidation 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.
It is the first decree issued by Bishop Galante in a diocesan-wide restructuring he announced last year. When Bishop announced his intentions for the reconfiguration of parishes, he indicated that it would take 12-24 months before decrees would be issued in order to provide ample time for parishes to complete the necessary preparations. Three 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.
Restructuring undertaken to address challenges
After having heard from the people of the diocese at more than 138 Speak Up sessions and following a period of extensive consultation with deanery planners, the Diocesan Planning Commission and the Presbyteral Council of the diocese, Bishop Galante on April 3, 2008 announced his intention to reconfigure parishes of the diocese in order to address challenges facing the Church in South Jersey and to improve pastoral care to the people.
The challenges include 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.
Bishop Galante has emphasized that the uniting of parishes will galvanize resources and parish energies in order to create stronger, more vibrant communities of faith, improve pastoral care to the people of the diocese, and create greater opportunities for outreach.
To guide parishes toward merger, Priest Conveners for each merger were appointed last August. Core Teams were formed last autumn with representation from each parish to assist the Priest Convener in the work of preparing the parishes to merge.
The Catholic Community of Christ Our Light
Father Tom Newton and the Core Team, composed of four members from St. Peter Celestine and four members from Queen of Heaven, as well as various subcommittees, met more than 15 times beginning last October to tend to the range of pastoral, civil and canonical matters necessary to establish the new parish.
After hearing from both parish communities, and working with a subcommittee of the Core Team, Father Newton last February proposed that the name of the parish be The Catholic Community of Christ Our Light. The name is derived from the sung proclamation that accompanies the procession from the New Fire into the church at the beginning of the Easter Vigil. The new community also chose Easter as the parish feast day.
“It is the Feast of Easter which speaks to the newness of the community and to the fact that we desire to be a community that proclaims the light of Christ to a people, a community, and a world often times in need of that Light,” said Father Tom Newton in a February 17 letter to Bishop Galante. Likewise, the parish mission statement, developed by a subcommittee of the Core Team, calls the parish “to embrace the Body of Christ and reflect His light to the world.”
Laying the foundations for the new parish
In April, Father Newton notified Bishop Galante that the Core Team had completed its work and asked that its preparations be reviewed by the Diocesan Merger Review Committee.
In addition to civil and canonical considerations, the Core Team in its preparation work 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.
Parishes indicate a readiness to merge
Following an onsite visit by the Review Committee on May 19, Monsignor Peter M. Joyce, Chancellor of the diocese, notified Father Newton that the Review Committee confirmed that the necessary steps had occurred.
With preparations complete, Father Newton and the eight members of the Core Team wrote to Bishop Galante on June 2, 2009 requesting that he issue the decree establishing the new parish.
“Having worked together for these eight months, with the Spirit’s fire in our hearts and wind at our backs, we the Priest Convener and the Core Team, with the support of the current pastor, believe that the faith communities of Queen of Heaven and St. Peter Celestine have been drawn by this same Holy Spirit into one Community of Faith,” they wrote.
Fostering parish unity
During the eight months of preparations, the parishes had information meetings about the merger and the Priest Convener and Core Team communicated regularly with parishioners of both parishes. Minutes of meetings and progress reports were published regularly in parish bulletins.
Father Newton and the Core Team also placed an emphasis on community building activities, including Founders Day celebrations. Beginning in the fall, events and programs at both parishes were opened to all parishioners. For example, members of St. Peter Celestine attended the Lenten Soup and Scripture series at Queen of Heaven, while members of Queen of Heaven participated in the Misa De Gallo celebration at St. Peter Celestine prior to Christmas.
During the Lenten season, the communities created a Garment of Suffering, made of quilt pieces from parishioners, acknowledging the feelings of sorrow and loss that were being felt, especially early in the process. “The quilt became the Garment of Triumph with the Easter Season, as the community has worked through the inevitable emotions that accompany this kind of change,” said Fr. Newton.
Joe Cooney, director of communications and stewardship for Queen of Heaven parish, has felt the range of emotions symbolized by the quilt. Three generations of his own family have been parishioners, dating back to 1960. “The process has been difficult for everyone, but especially for parishioners who have been here from the beginning,” he said. “There’s definitely a sense of loss of the familiar. But, I hope and pray that there will be growing optimism and excitement about the opportunities that await us in the new parish.”
Greater involvement in parish life
Last month, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI said laypeople are called not simply to help their priests run their parishes, but to share fully in the responsibility of building up the church. “This will require a change of mentality, especially regarding laypeople, to move from considering them to be clergy’s collaborators to recognizing them as truly sharing responsibility for the existence and action of the church,” he said.
For Core Team member Joe Meloche, who has been a parishioner of St. Peter Celestine for more than 30 years, the process of preparing the parishes to come together has helped him see his role in the parish more clearly and to appreciate the wider dimensions of parish life. “It has been an incredible process, a real journey. I knew it would be a lot of work and time consuming. But more than that, it has been a life-changing experience for me in terms of my own faith and in terms of how I view my role in the parish and in the Church. The process has helped me become more involved and to realize that parish life is more than attending mass. By serving on the Core Team, it has also given me a stronger sense of responsibility, not only for the faith of my own family, but also for the parish community. It’s given me a greater sense of ownership in the mission of the parish and the Church.”
A four-year journey
Queen of Heaven was first established as a mission of Christ the King, Haddonfield. Established as a parish on April 6, 1955, its territory was comprised of part of Christ the King and St. Peter’s Merchantville. With continued growth in the Cherry Hill area at the time, St. Peter Celestine was established in 1961. That new parish was comprised of parts of Christ the King, Haddonfield, St. Peter’s, Merchantville and Queen of Heaven.
The process of uniting the two communities began almost four years ago when a team of parishioners began to review spiritual reports, parish data, demographic reports and to develop recommendations on how to strengthen parish life in this area of the diocese.
In January 2008 deanery planners recommended to Bishop Galante that the parishes merge. 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 announced his intention to merge the parishes on April 3, 2008. Bishop Galante heard again from the Presbyteral Council last month before issuing the decree this week.
Alice Corica, a Core Team member who has been a parishioner of Queen of Heaven for 35 years, said, “It’s a time of sadness, but also joy. We’ve done the work, we’ve made the preparations. I’m ready to go forward. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel bad or that I don’t love what we’ve had, but I think it’s time. We’re going to establish something new and wonderful.”
The work of building the new parish
“With the promulgation of the decree, our work of building the new parish is not done, but really is just beginning,” said Father Newton. “We will focus our attention on establishing parish councils and providing the ministries that will serve the needs of the people in this part of the diocese.”
Within 30 days of the establishment of the new parish, Father Newton will nominate two lay trustees and a ceremony installing him as the new pastor will be scheduled. Within 30 to 60 days, new parish pastoral and finance councils will be formed.
Father Newton and the Core Team also have worked to ensure adequate staffing of the new parish and the provision of ministries, including those that will address pastoral priorities identified through Speak Up sessions. The new parish will add for the first time a full-time pastoral associate for Young Adult Faith Formation, as well as a pastoral associate for Justice and Community Outreach.