By Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
When Bishop Paul Sirba approved a strategic plan in January 2012, it was presented as a flexible plan that would guide him on decisions like clustering and merging parishes for the following five years, with changes implemented as needed.
About halfway through the five-year period, Bishop Sirba writes in this month’s Northern Cross that by the time new clergy assignments start taking effect in July, about 90 percent of the plan will be in place.
“The pace of implementation has been faster than I anticipated,” said Father Peter Muhich, who has helped lead the strategic planning process and its implementation, as well as seeing the effects in his own parishes. “While these kinds of changes are not easy, the priests and parishioners of the diocese seem more than ready to deal with the challenges facing our diocese. I think we all get the fact that we can’t stand still.”
He said that there still remains some flexibility in what remains to be implemented, and there have been smaller, “common sense adjustments” to the plan too.
The strategic planning process lasted more than a year and involved the input of more than 250 people across the diocese. Its purpose was to address four challenges confronting the church: a possible lower number of clergy, shifting demographic trends across the diocese, the fiscal health and infrastructure of parishes and the health and well-being of clergy.
As the planning process began in 2010, there were 45 pastors assigned in parishes. The strategic plan projected that there would be a substantial decline (to 36 or 37) in the number available from 2012 to 2014, based on the number of priests who could retire after the age of 70. Scenarios suggested that the number of pastors available would rise back to 2010 levels by 2017 due to the ordination of the large group of seminarians that were studying at the time.
Currently, there are 43 pastors assigned to parishes in the diocese. An additional six young priests (currently associates or parochial vicars) will be qualified to be assigned as pastors in the next year or two. At the same time, there are several priests who will have reached retirement age and could retire.
Shifting demographic trends have also played a role. Officials say the greatest change in a small geographic area has been in the merger and clustering of the small parishes in the Hibbing Deanery, where changes in the mining economy have left once thriving communities with small parishes struggling to keep up with expenses. Such changes are projected to continue affecting parishes across the diocese.
The strategic plan outlined different changes parishes are facing.
Clustered parishes work together and share clergy and perhaps staff but maintain separate identities.
Merged parishes share clergy and staff and become one parish in church and civil law, with one or more church buildings. Parishes “merged with” each other maintain multiple church buildings, while the description “merged into” means two or more parishes become one parish with a single church building for worship.
The following changes have taken place so far:
There has been a re-alignment of the clusters: St. Francis, Brainerd; All Saints, Baxter; and St. Thomas, Pine Beach, now form one cluster while St. Andrew in Brainerd and St. Mathias in Ft. Ripley are another separate cluster.
St. Christopher, Nisswa; St. Alice, Pequot Lakes; and Our Lady of Lourdes, Pine River, have begun the process of merging with each other.
St. Joseph, Finlayson, has merged into St. Luke, Sandstone, and closed. Sacred Heart, Bruno, has also merged into St. Luke and closed.
St. Joseph, Beroun, is now clustered with Immaculate Conception, Pine City.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, Duluth, is clustered with St. Mary Star of the Sea and Our Lady of Mercy in Duluth.
St. James, Duluth, is clustered with St. Elizabeth, Duluth, and St. Margaret Mary, Duluth.
St. Ann, Bena, merged into St. Joseph, Ball Club, and closed.
St. John, Hill City, merged into St. Joseph, Grand Rapids, and closed. St. Paul, Warba, also merged into St. Joseph and closed. St. Joseph is clustered with St. Augustine, Cohasset.
St. Kevin, Pengilly, merged into St. Cecilia, Nashwauk, and closed. St. Mary, Keewatin, also merged into St. Cecilia and closed.
St. Mary, Marble, merged into Mary Immaculate, Coleraine, and closed. St. Joseph, Taconite, also merged into Mary Immaculate and closed.
St. Cecilia, Nashwauk, is clustered with Mary Immaculate, Coleraine.
Queen of Peace, Hoyt Lakes, and St. John, Biwabik, have begun the process of merging with Holy Rosary, Aurora.
St. Mary, Cook, is clustered with Holy Cross, Orr, and St. Martin, Tower.
Sacred Heart, Virginia, and Sacred Heart, Mt. Iron, merged with Holy Spirit, Virginia.
Father Muhich said initial conversations with Bishop Sirba include using the same kind of process for the next round of strategic planning, “because it worked well. Broad consultation in the deaneries brought our people together to face our common challenges, clarified issues and corrected misunderstandings. The process made the plan better and is making the plan’s implementation better, too.”
He said the next round will focus more specifically on the New Evangelization and will likely begin sometime in 2016.
Read a more detailed document on what has been done in implementing the plan so far here.