RYE, N.Y. (CNS) — First there was dead silence and then there were tears.
That’s how Father Robert J. Verrigni described the reaction of parishioners at St. Ursula in Mount Vernon to the Nov. 2 announcement that their parish would merge with another and cease to celebrate weekly Masses after Aug. 1, 2015.
The Archdiocese of New York will merge 112 of its parishes into 55. Twenty-four of the merged parishes will use two sites for scheduled Masses. St. Ursula is one of at least 31 churches that will be open only for occasional Masses and celebrations.
Father Verrigni, the parish administrator, told Catholic News Service that longtime parishioners were most upset, but children in the religious education programs also approached him to ask where they would receive their first Eucharist and confirmation.
“I told everyone, ‘Right now, this is the way the church is going and we have to trust God’s will for the future,'” he said.
St. Ursula is one of six parishes in Mount Vernon. After the mergers are complete, there will be three.
“Part of me is just empty,” said Maria Paulercio, a parishioner at St. Ursula for 55 years. “Tears started rolling from my eyes when we heard. I feel it was a done deal from the beginning of the process. The cardinal knew what would happen, but they were trying to give the parish time to accept it,” she said.
“I feel sorry for the people who gave their hearts and time and minds to the meetings,” Paulercio added. The five-year planning process, known as Making All Things New, was instituted by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan. It sought input from 368 parishes clustered into 75 groups, as well as a 40-person advisory committee, the archdiocesan Priests’ Council and archdiocesan staff.
In Port Chester, a village of 29,000 people, four parishes established to serve various immigrant communities will merge into one, with two worship sites. The Nov. 2 merger announcement did not identify which churches will continue to have scheduled Masses. The new parish will be under the care of Salesian priests, who already administer two parishes, one established by Italian immigrants and the other that draws from the village’s growing Hispanic population.
“This process is not one of abandoning people. The people are the ones we’re focusing on.”
Harry Florentine, a lifelong parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy, which traditionally served Irish-Americans, said the merger “has the possibility of creating a stronger multiethnic, multicultural church community in Port Chester. Instead of having the divisions we now see, there would be more unity.”
Regina Kowrach, who worships at Sacred Heart in Port Chester, said the people who heard the merger news at the Polish-language Sunday Mass wondered what would become of the $12,000 raised at a parish party two weeks earlier. She said it was intended for general support of a parish that was revitalized by the appointment last summer of a tri-lingual administrator.
At St. Roch on Staten Island, lifelong parishioner Mary Lou Sanginari said, “I’m devastated. I think it’s a disgrace to the Catholic Church. We’ll do anything to keep this church open. My daughter’s an attorney. I’m going to see if she can draw up some papers and start a petition.”
St. Roch is slated to be merged and its church will not be used for scheduled Masses.
Without reference to specific parishes, Auxiliary Bishop John J. Jenik said it’s unlikely merger decisions will be reversed. “Some new information would have to be found out that we don’t know.”
Sanginari was one of several people who said they may go to a non-Catholic church if their church closes.
Eileen Mulcahy, director of the parish planning office for the Archdiocese of New York, said other dioceses found many of the people who left after the mergers later returned. “People are angry in the moment, but it’s short term,” she said. “This process is not one of abandoning people. The people are the ones we’re focusing on.”
St. John in the Bronx is the receiving parish for a merger with Visitation. Father Michael Kerrigan, the St. John administrator, said, “It’s easier for us, but we can understand the sense of sadness and if the roles were reversed, we’d be sad, too.”
Father Kerrigan said people appreciate that the neighborhood demographics have changed and the church adapts itself to the present concerns. The merger is “a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our parish life,” he said.
A letter to the parishioners from Cardinal Dolan asked the receiving parish to recognize the merger “not as ‘them’ having to fit into ‘your’ parish, but as two parishes coming together, in the Lord’s name, to become a new worshipping family.”
Jesuit Father Mark Hallinan is pastor of two Staten Island parishes that will merge into one. His parishioners are predominantly Mexican immigrants, some of whom lack legal status.
He said the hardest part of the announcement “is these people have had the experience of not being cared for. I wanted to make sure that they understand the archdiocese is not abandoning them. I want to be as present as I can for them and make this transition as smoothly as I can for them.”
— By Beth Griffin, Catholic News Service. Contributing to this story was Gregory A. Shemitz from Staten Island.