New names for a new era

Aug. 3-16, 2006
New names for a new era
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
As parishes merge, communities find identity in new names

New developments in the Catholic world have forced faith communities to develop new strategies for spiritual survival.
The priest shortage in particular has been a considerable challenge for close-knit neighborhood parishes. For some time now, the Syracuse Diocese has met this cultural shift with church mergers.

Recently, in Utica, five churches underwent reconfiguration. St. Francis de Sales, St. Mary’s and Historic Old St. John’s merged to become the Catholic Community of Historic Old St. John’s – St. Francis de Sales – St. Mary’s. Meanwhile, Blessed Sacrament joined St. Mary of Mt. Carmel to become St. Mary of Mt. Carmel/Blessed Sacrament.

The suggested name of any new church is usually developed by the parish council or, in the case of a merger, by both parish councils. Once a potential name is determined, it is submitted for the approval of the bishop. In other cases, the parishes have elected to come up with new names altogether. Most recently, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Mexico merged with St. Anne’s in Parish to become St. Anne, Mother of Mary.

Father Jim Lang, the vicar for parishes, noted that the actual name of the building never changes once it is dedicated, according to Vatican law. A parish’s new name refers specifically to the new faith community. Meanwhile, nearby St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Lacona and St. John the Evangelist in Pulaski were two of the first churches to weather reconfiguration in recent years. Under the leadership of Father John Hogan, now the pastor at St. John the Baptist in Rome, the two parishes merged in 2002 to become Christ Our Light Church. The merger process between the parishes began in the late 1970’s. During his pastorate at St. John the Evangelist, Father Tony Keeffe adopted St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Father Hogan noted that the merger of the two parishes was “organic” in that it was a very natural process for two parishes so familiar with one another.
“Administratively, it just made more sense,” Father Hogan said. In keeping with the new era, the new community wanted a new name for the parish, according to Father Hogan. The suggestion of a hyphenated name was among the first suggested and also among the first to go, Father Hogan noted. He said that the community was proud of the strides it had made toward the merger and wanted a name that looked to the future.

“We’ve come this far, we want to break with the past in terms of separation,” he said. The parishioners knew that they did not want the new community to be named after a saint and early suggestions of such names were promptly tossed aside.
“They had already had two saints and they wanted a non-saint name for the parish,” he said. The campaign for Christ Our Light inspired the parishioners regarding the once separated parishes’ new identity. “They felt like Christ Our Light reflected the community,” he said. “They tried to be a light of Christ in that area.” Although the new parish name was popular with the parishioners, the community also felt it was important to retain the sense of history at the churches. Father Hogan had small signs made at either church with the old name, the foundation date and also the closing date in reference to when the new community was founded.

But the new name was greeted enthusiastically. “I remember the day I announced the new name,” he said. “Everybody applauded at every Mass.” Brother Ed Falsey, OFM Conv., coordinated the process by which St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Anne’s and St. Joseph’s in Binghamton merged.

Brother Ed volunteered for the task knowing that his extensive education and experience in psychotherapy, social work and community organization would benefit the process. The churches merged in 2003 and the new church, Holy Trinity, was blessed and its altar consecrated in 2004 in the church formerly named St. Anne’s. The parish councils selected the name through a survey process. During the first phase, parishioners voted and culled six options from a wide-open field. A second survey narrowed the field to three and finally Holy Trinity emerged as the top choice. Brother Ed explained that the logic behind the choice was simple: three churches joined reflected the Trinity.

Among those disappointed were a group lobbying hard for the name Divine Mercy. Meanwhile, Brother Ed and his fellow Franciscans had favored the name St. Clare and they were a little disappointed. “But the people identified with it and that helped everybody connect to it,” he said. Brother Ed cautioned that in the long term the name Holy Trinity might perhaps be too generic but in the short term it remains distinct enough. Brother Ed said that the process of merging the parishes was “challenging” but that “it’s been a blessing in many ways.”

Initially, the process was met with resistance and a certain amount of resentment. Once the parish communities had gone through the process, however, many were enthusiastic about the new environment. “At first, everybody had a problem with it, but they went through the process and learned to accept it and some see it has been a blessing,” Brother Ed said.

A certain number of disgruntled parishioners stopped attending once the new church had been founded but Brother Ed said that is to be expected. Many of those who stopped attending were traveling considerable distances and the new situation offered them an opportunity to attend churches closer to their homes. The executive parish council determining the manner in which St. John the Evangelist Church and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse will be merged is still early in the reconfiguration process and a new name has yet to be arrived at. In conversation, members of the newly formed executive pastoral council, which includes representatives from both parish communities, were loosely referring to the impending new community as “the two Cathedrals,” according to Cathedral pastoral associate Sister Maureen D’Onofrio, CSJ, and Cathedral pastoral council president Donna Zeolla.

Zeolla said that at this particular stage, church leaders were emphasizing the parishioners involved in the merger. “We’re still in the process of combining the best of both communities,” she said. “In the long run, that’s the best way to do it.”

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