Cherry Hill parishes unite to form Holy Eucharist Parish

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Bishop Joseph Galante formally announced today that the parishes of St. Pius X and Holy Rosary, both in Cherry Hill, will merge and the new parish resulting from the merger, Holy Eucharist Parish, will be established December 23, 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 George C. Seiter, the current pastor of St. Pius X and Holy Rosary and Priest Convener for the merger, has been named pastor of the new parish, which will serve about 2,000 families. The seat of the parish will be Saint Pius X Church, while the parish boundaries will be those of the existing parishes.

Reconfiguration addresses challenges

It is the seventh 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. 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.

Many parishes in South Jersey also are located in very close geographic proximity to each other in areas where population has diminished or shifted. Cherry Hill Township, for example, has experienced changes in population over the last four decades that have impacted parishes there. From 1950 to 1960, population tripled, from ten thousand to more than 30,000, according to United States Census reports. Again, from 1960-1970, the township population nearly doubled, to 64,000. It was during these two decades that St. Pius X and Holy Rosary parishes—and four others—were established to serve the Cherry Hill population. However, since then, population has slowed dramatically. In the last three decades, population grew at just one percent per decade.

The overall population change in Cherry Hill has been compounded by the dramatic decline in the number of Catholics in that population that actually attends Mass each week, from almost 75 percent in 1960 to less than 25 percent now. The net result is that at the time Bishop Galante announced his intentions for parish reconfiguration, there were fewer Catholics in the pews of the six parishes in Cherry Hill than there were in 1960, when just two parishes served the Cherry Hill area.

With fewer Catholics in the pews than decades past, growing financial challenges for the parishes have resulted, making it increasingly difficult for the parishes individually to fully serve the needs of the people.

Once Holy Eucharist parish is formed, Cherry Hill will be served by four parishes: Holy Eucharist, the Catholic Community of Christ our Light (which was formed through the merger of St. Peter Celestine and Queen of Heaven parishes), St. Mary and St. Thomas More.

An eagerness among the people to unite the parishes

“There’s been an eagerness among the people of the two parishes to come together to form a new parish,” said Father Seiter. “They each have accomplished tremendous things, including outreach to the community. Yet we could see that we couldn’t continue to do all we want to do with limited resources. We knew we could do even more good by uniting.”

He acknowledged that it hasn’t necessarily been easy for everyone. “It’s been a struggle for some parishioners. There’s great loyalty to each of the parishes. But, it’s become more and more difficult to do what we need to do with fewer people in the parishes.”

Father Seiter said the Core Team members worked together very well and stayed focused on the goal of creating a stronger parish. “They understood Bishop Galante’s vision for a revitalized Church. They understood that this merger is necessary if we are to have a vibrant, viable parish for this area of Cherry Hill.”

He said the need for greater outreach and ministry to serve the people was a major focus for the Core Team. “We never lost sight of the pastoral priorities. They were always in front of us as we began to lay the foundation for the new parish. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we really stressed the importance of beginning to meet these priorities in the new parish.”

“Now that we have this unity of a new parish, we can do a lot better,” Father Seiter added. He noted that they’ve spent special attention on the parish’s liturgical life. “We’ve got excellent liturgical ministry. This is something that we had to bring about immediately. If parishioners come to Mass and experience good liturgy, they’re more likely to come back,” he said.

In addition to community liturgy, the new parish will continue to focus on community outreach. Father Seiter said outreach to seniors will be an important consideration. He said they will work to augment the existing bereavement ministry to reach out to those who have lost a spouse and do not have immediate family in the area. The parish also is working to strengthen youth and young adult ministry. “Individually the parishes struggled with this, but combined, we can diligently focus on this. Our religious education programs were strong, but we need to expand beyond this age group. We don’t have a history of providing ministry for young married couples, for example, but we would like to initiate that.”

Reconfiguration followed study and consultation

Bishop Galante’s April 2008 intention to merge the two parishes that will make up Holy Eucharist 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.

Parishioners from both parishes were represented on the Core Team that formed last fall to prepare the parishes to come together. Fifteen times over ten months, the Priest Convener and eight Core Team members worked to complete the necessary administrative, pastoral, canonical and civil preparations for merger. On August 17 Father Seiter, 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.

The onsite visit was conducted on September 29. The Committee, affirming the readiness of the parishes to merge, noted that “This was a well-organized effort by the Core Team and Priest Convener. It was evident that there was genuine teamwork between the Priest Convener and the members of the Core Team. They are all to be commended.

Parishes share common roots

The uniting of these two parishes was natural because of their location and common roots. The present parishes are geographically proximate and share common roots. They are just 2.8 miles apart.

Holy Rosary, which was established as a parish on June 14, 1958, was originally a mission of Christ the King, Haddonfield. St. Pius X was established on June 10, 1961. From 1935-1961, it was part of Christ the King, and before that, St. Rose of Lima, Haddon Heights.

Parishioners chose the name “Holy Eucharist” for the new parish. “The focus on Eucharist acknowledges the communion of the two parishes and highlights that we are the Body of Christ on earth,” noted the voting form provided to parishioners.

We’re one family now

Ted Warren, who has been a parishioner of Holy Rosary for 15 years, and served on the Core Team, acknowledged the difficulty of change. “It’s been difficult in some ways because Holy Rosary has always been a family. My sons attended Holy Rosary Elementary school. Even though we’ve struggled, everyone pulled together to make the parish work. Yet, our parishioners are ready to move forward and to embrace the change. We’ve prepared for this.”

Warren praised Monsignor Brennan and Monsignor Scott for the role they played in forming a Core Team that worked so well together. “They really thought through the process of forming the Core Team. In the process of working together, we’ve picked up new friends from Pius X, and they feel the same.”

“Father Seiter has done great job of helping us to come together as one new community, combining the good from both parishes. We’re one family now.”

Core Team member Tony Messina, a parishioner of St. Pius X for 25 years, said, “Bishop Galante is doing the right thing, for all the reasons that have been given.”

Messina has been involved in the planning process from the beginning, dating to the fall, 2006. “It’s been a long process. It’s taken a lot of energy. But the two parishes are very compatible and together will be much greater than we were alone. It’s a nice fit.”

He said the new parish would draw from the strengths of both parishes. “There are good things that Holy Rosary did that were unique and better than what we had at St. Pius X,” he said. By coming together, we’ll have a fuller church, more activities, greater financial strength, new energy and new ideas. We’ll be able to do much more. Now that the decree has been issued, there’s a call to action. It’s time to get started.”