August 2, 2014

Declining number of priests forces changes at two Belleville parishes

Fewer Masses and shared rectory and office space are just some of the latest ways that two Catholic churches plan to work together.

The pastors at two west Belleville parishes, Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady Queen of Peace, announced at their weekend Masses the next step in the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring.

It is the first parish partnership in Belleville to announce changes that would allow both churches to operate under one pastor.

"We have become sort of the poster child for this," said Monsignor Jack McEvilly, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace, who plans to retire next summer.

While each church and school plans to remain open, the parishes must prepare for a time when they are served by only one priest.

"A lot of these changes are necessary because we must adapt to the declining number of priests in our diocese," said the Rev. Matthew Elie, pastor of Blessed Sacrament. "We must continue to work and pray for these vocations."

A letter signed by both pastors was mailed Saturday to parishioners of both churches. It gave the following timeline for proposed changes:

* Through September, Elie will move his place of residence to the rectory of Our Lady Queen of Peace.

* Through December, the parish offices for both parishes will be combined and located at Blessed Sacrament. It will take several months to move equipment, church records and staff. "You will see me here all the time," Elie said during his homily Saturday at Blessed Sacrament. "You will probably see Fr. Jack here to conduct parish business."

* Beginning in January, a new Mass schedule for both parishes will be implemented. "Each parish will reduce the number of weekend Masses from three to two," the letter stated. "The Masses will be so spaced that one priest can celebrate them all when the need arises."

In addition, the number and timing of weekday and holy day Masses will be reduced and spaced, so that one priest could celebrate all Masses.

About 75 people attended the 4:30 p.m. Mass Saturday at Blessed Sacrament and about 85 were at Queen of Peace's 5 p.m. Mass.

When the parish partnership reduces the combined six Sunday Masses to four, the services should be fuller, McEvilly said.

"That wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?" he asked his congregation.

McEvilly said that they are still working on exact Mass times, which may be affected by other congregations' Mass schedule. He said the working plan would be for one parish in the partnership to have the Saturday Vigil and a middle-morning Sunday Mass; the other church would have an early morning and late morning Sunday Masses.

McEvilly, who has been at Queen of Peace for 32 years, was eligible to retire last month when he turned 75. He decided to stay on for one more year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination in the priesthood.

Most other parish partnerships will announce such plans after November.

The plans for this partnership were approved by Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton early because of McEvilly's impending retirement.

"Blessed Sacrament Parish and Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, like many other parishes, should ideally each have their own parish priest," Braxton wrote in June in response to the latest plans submitted as part of the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring.

However, his mandate to the partnership was to develop a strategic pastoral model by which it would be served by only one priest.

"I am very aware that this is a difficult model to put in place for a number of reasons, including the size of the parishes, their very distinct personas, and the fact that they have two vibrant schools between them," Braxton wrote.

Sean Louth, an Our Lady Queen of Peace parishioner, said he was OK with the announced changes. "I go to both churches," he said.

Meg Gundlach, also a Queen of Peace parishioner, said she is mainly concerned because people are set in their ways. "We're going to have be prepared to roll with the changes," she said.

Gundlach has two children, 9-year-old Luke and 11-year-old Madison, who attend Queen of Peace school, so she was relieved that the school will remain open.

"We love the school, we love the parish," she said.

Both grade schools have about 225 students, and neither building could handle 450 students, so there are no talks of combining schools at this time, McEvilly said.

Braxton wrote that he was concerned about the long-term future of the two schools and of the other Belleville parishes: "Years of studies and considerable financial investments have not yet resulted in a city-wide plan that will strengthen our Catholic elementary school presence while acknowledging that we have more Catholic schools than we need in the city."

Braxton acknowledged that both parishes and schools were financially viable and have stable populations but said those things can change "in one year.

"Now is the time for you to continue your discussions for bold new ways to share parish and school ministries."

McEvilly said the schools at Our Lady Queen of Peace and Blessed Sacrament and their supporting parishes are strong and have no debt.

But he continued, "We're not getting the clergy we need."

McEvilly had promised his parish that he would stay active in the priesthood an extra year for every new young man from the parish who enters the seminary. But no men have come forward to join the priesthood, he said.

Having been at one parish for so long, McEvilly has baptized, confirmed and married individuals who are now requesting him to baptize their children and so forth.

"That's the beauty of being someplace 32 years," he said.

When people book weddings for next summer, McEvilly said he could not promise that he would be the priest who presides over the sacrament. But he has said confidently that the church will be there.

The letter to parishioners ended saying that the Parish Partnership Committee will evaluate these changes throughout the next year: "We realize that change is difficult and ask for your prayers and support as we go through this transition."

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at or 618-239-2460.

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