Here and Now

June 26, 2003
Here and Now
By Howie Mansfield
Two Oswego County parishes share a pastor, build a community between them

St. Anne’s Church in Parish and St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Mexico have a long-time connection. St. Anne’s is the mother church of St. Mary’s, once a mission of the Parish church. The two churches are in the same parish cluster, just a few miles away from each other. Through the pastoral planning process occurring in the diocese, St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s began to work together more closely. With the retirement of Father Anthony Keefe, pastor of St. Anne’s, the two churches will once again be joined by having one pastor. Father Stephen Wirkes, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, will assume the pastoral duties at St. Anne’s.

Father Wirkes said St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s have been in dialogue for a few years. “We started by having a meeting in the pastoral care area (PCA) to address the priest shortage. Everyone was afraid because they were wondering if they would lose their church or their pastor. Father [James] Lang came and those fears disappeared,” Father Wirkes said. “We are normal, regular people who share the same faith. We are good people who want to make a plan for the future.” Initial PCA meetings were held and the churches began asking questions. One of the results of these first meetings was parishes needed to find who their natural connections were with.

“It was natural for St. Anne’s in Parish and St. Mary’s in Mexico to start working more closely. St. Mary’s was a mission of St. Anne’s. When the population shifted from Parish to Mexico we became the bigger church,” said Father Wirkes. “We split up into those natural groupings and had a joint parish council meeting. People again were afraid, but we could only do the best we could.” Stephen Stelmashuck, parishioner of St. Anne’s Church and former trustee, said it’s the common history that makes the bond between the two churches tighter. “Yes, we’ve had our own pastor since 1969, but we have a long history sharing a pastor. From 1950 to 1968, Father James Slowey served these two churches and it worked well then,” Stelmashuck said. “The situation is not totally foreign to us.”

Further discussion and consultation led St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s to be in a position to make a good decision after the announcement of Father Keefe’s retirement. “We didn’t understand in the beginning why the bishop just didn’t make a decision, but now we understand the wisdom,” Father Wirkes said. “The local people got to know each other and decide on a plan. The decision is that there will be two parishes with two parish councils, sharing one pastor.” Both parishes are dedicated to making the new situation work. Father Wirkes believes there needs to be a parish in these two small rural villages. “When there are a few miles to the next church, having your own church is important,” he explained.

In order to accommodate Masses for both churches, each parish lost a Mass. “It’s affecting both parishes but St. Anne’s is losing more. They are down to one weekend Mass and they lost their resident pastor,” said Father Wirkes. “Yes, it will be an inconvienence and yes, it’s a major change, but it’s not the end of the world. The good thing is that they are only 10 minutes apart. I’ve asked both parishes, at some time during the summer, to go to the other church at least twice. I want them to get comfortable with both churches.” Father Wirkes will celebrate Mass at St. Anne’s on Saturday and three Masses at St. Mary’s on Sunday. This new schedule allows Father Wirkes to dedicate his time to each parish on the weekend. “When I go to St. Anne’s, I’ll be able to come early and stay late. I won’t have to run to the other parish for Mass,” he said. “All of the decisions are not written in stone. If it doesn’t work, we will change the schedule. But we had to start somewhere. There is no getting around it. The reality is there is only one of me. But the good thing is both parishes are open to change.”

Stelmashuck said there is hesitation and anxiety from the St. Anne’s parishioners, but they are willing to work the process through with Father Wirkes. “The process has gone as well as could be expected, under the circumstances. No one likes to lose a pastor, and a Mass at the same time,” Stelmashuck said. “Initially we will see how it works.” Father Wirkes said the pastoral planning is not just confined to Oswego County. “Every parish is going to be affected by this process, and they are already. As the priests retire, all will be affected. It’s not a happy process, but we are dealing with it the best we can,” he said. “But all parishes will be affected by it sooner or later.”

According to Father Wirkes, the people of St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s have been “absolutely fantastic” in supporting and affirming his work as pastor. He hopes more people will consider training in specific ministry areas. “We have a deacon who will be ordained next year and that will be a great help. But we need to set up a team at St. Mary’s to conduct a prayer service in the absence of a priest. St. Anne’s already has one in place. If I get sick or am snowed in, we should be prepared.” Stelmashuck explained that Father Keefe set the tone for pastoral planning by being realistic. “People were in fear of the idea of ‘reconfiguration.’ Parishioners thought for sure that any pastoral planning with our church would result in closure,” said Stelmashuck. “But Father Tony reassured the people. ‘Reconfiguration’ is only a word. The process is not as dire as people first thought. Father Tony said the parish might lose a resident pastor and have to reschedule Masses, but the church is needed for the people here and would stay.” Father Wirkes is happy about the future with both parishes. “The people of St. Anne’s are so kind and good. The priest shortage is hitting here now, there’s no more denying it, but we will make the best of it,” said Father Wirkes. “Father Lang has been very helpful and he will continue to help us through the shock value of the process.”

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