Life is rapidly changing for three parishes in Binghamton, with little time to catch one’s breath. St. Joseph’s Church, St. Ann’s Church and St. Stanislaus Kostka Church are without a full-time priest and there is no set plan for ministry. Bishop James Moynihan asked the Franciscan friars to lead a project to unify these three parishes into a community of faith. Brother Edward Falsey, OFM Conv., agreed to coordinate the endeavor, administering St. Stanislaus and St. Joseph’s Churches while Deacon Leslie Distin, Ph.D., diocesan director for permanent diaconate personnel, became administrator of St. Ann’s Church.
The move had not been without its difficulties, Brother Edward explained. The possibilities for the future far outweigh the feelings that originally surfaced.
“I don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t think they know either and it makes them anxious,” Brother Edward said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. There is a group of Franciscans committed to the process, but the rest is Holy Spirit stuff. There’s lots of potential, but we understand that a lot of people may leave their church.”
Brother Edward said ethnic identity that once defined each parish community is slowly disappearing. The older constituency, which still remains in all three churches, decreases as the years go by.
“Those parishes are older now. Most of the parishioners are 60 and older and there are not a lot of young people at the liturgies,” said Deacon Distin, who has worked with all three parishes at some point over his years of ministry. “But their roots are strong among their culture.”
However, the Franciscans hope to inject vitality into the parish communities.
“Their grandparents and parents made the sacrifice to build the churches, but this generation needs to make the sacrifice to build a thriving, evangelizing community,” Brother Edward said. After consultation with diocesan officials, Brother Edward volunteered to head the project. He formed a commission early in the summer with members of the pastoral care area. The commission was to look at the current situation and how best to face the future. As time went on, the commission decided to focus on the Prospect Hill area of Binghamton and how best to serve that community .
“I think it’s going well. Sure, we have had our problems, but we are moving forward. It’s frustrating,” Brother Edward said. “Plus, people are leaving because of various reasons.” Deacon Distin and Brother Edward said the three parishes are beginning to take steps toward building a strong faith community.
“If there are only three Masses, we had to decided how that was going to work. But the concern eased itself because people are going to a Mass which is convenient to them,” Deacon Distin said. “If someone goes to St. Ann’s for 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday and they are from St. Stan’s, when they put their offering envelope in collection, it gets back to their parish. We have also invited Eucharistic ministers from each parish to look at the schedule and see what works best for them. St. Ann’s just had a change of personnel. We added an organist to St. Ann’s who was serving at St. Joseph’s and is familiar with all three parishes. It’s these little steps that help.”
Deacon Distin said the parishes are combining religious education classes because of limited staffing.
“It’s much more efficient to combine them. But it’s also getting the kids and parents together for CCD,” Deacon Distin said. “The churches are so close together and many of the parishioners know each other or are at least acquainted with one another, so they aren’t complete strangers.”
One of the issues the commission dealt with is the consolidation of the three parishes into one, Brother Edward said. He has also met with the trustees of each parish to work out the legal issues of a potential consolidation. Brother Edward explained how low numbers of parishioners in each of the churches, along with a shortage of clergy and difficult economic times have contributed to the dialogue.
“There are too many buildings for the number of people. Each of the congregations has declined in numbers and none of us are full,” Deacon Distin said.
The Franciscan presence has held the project together, said Deacon Distin.
“I applaud the Franciscans for what they have done so far. Their manpower is no better than the diocese’s, but they are stepping forward to take on the additional work,” Deacon Distin said.
Brother Edward said local clergy have called to affirm the Franciscans’ work. Even members of the Franciscans’ province have offered words of encouragement and praise. Brother Edward said Deacon Distin has provided needed support during the process.
“Deacon Distin has been very helpful. He has a lot of insights on things and I appreciate that,” Brother Edward said.
Father George Sandor, OFM Conv., pastor of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Church, Father James Fukes, OFM Conv., parochial vicar at Ss. Cyril and Methodius and Father Simeon Rukastalis, OFM Conv., in residence at the church, will provide sacramental support to St. Ann’s, St. Stanislaus and St. Joseph parishes. Father Sandor is enthusiastic about the situation.
“The Franciscans have been here since the early 1920’s in the Southern Tier and we have had a great relationship with the diocese. This is just an enhancement of that. We are pleased we can continue to minister here in this area,” Father Sandor said. “As Franciscans, our role is to minister as a community. We want to maintain that community life. We will work in conjunction with other religious and laity as part of a ministerial team.”
Father Sandor and Brother Edward said religious sisters from the order of Ss. Cyril and Methodius are coming to aid in the ministry of the three parishes.
“They are super excited. They will bring lots of energy. They are native daughters of the area who taught at local schools,” Brother Edward said. “People are starting to hear that and they are getting excited. My hope is this church will be vibrant and active enough to draw people of God’s love in the world.”
Father Sandor said he and the other Franciscan priests have felt a warm reception at all of the churches.
“People are good-hearted in every parish and they are willing to give this a try,” Father Sandor said. “They always thank you for coming and they are glad the friars are helping.”
The Franciscan charism and love for all people in community has inspired Brother Edward to name the process the St. Clare Parish Project, after the one of the founders of the Franciscan order with St. Francis of Assisi. Brother Edward said he is slowly warming parishioners to the Franciscan presence in the parishes.
“With the friars taking over the liturgy and sacramental stuff, we didn’t want to cause problems. It was hard in the beginning, but they have been very welcoming to us,” Brother Edward said. Father Sandor said naming the project after St. Clare is appropriate.
“Both Francis and Clare were born around the same time. The Poor Clares are the largest group of contemplative sisters in the United States. That aspect of Franciscan life is very important. They are very prayerful people,” Father Sandor said. “That is a unique element to add to our pastoral care area — a spiritual one.”
Change brings fear and anxiety, but also hope, Father Sandor said.
“If people will trust the Lord, and the goodness of each other, they will experience a birthing of something brand new,” Father Sandor said. “We all need each other.”
Brother Edward hopes the St. Clare Parish Project can unify parishes facing a difficult future.
“They see themselves as people of God, but they must evangelize to all creation like St. Francis,” Brother Edward said. “We are going to form a community focused on doing Christ’s mission in the world.”