With the number of priests dropping in the North Country, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg hopes lay people will take on more leadership roles.
Granted, this is not breaking news. In a gradual creep over the last few generations, Catholic lay people have taken on many church-related duties that were once exclusively done by priests and nuns. Some of that was by design, urged by the Second Vatical Council to liven up parishes, but much of it was out of necessity, in response to a shrinking number of clergy.
Now as the priest count falls sharply, that need is more urgent, and the diocese is on the lookout for lay people who will undergo training and commit to helping the church do its work, both mundane and sacred.
Sister Carol Kraeger listens to Don Tucker tell old stories about Church of the Assumption in Gabriels, at an August 2011 picnic to celebrate the church’s centennial. Kraeger is pastoral assistant for the churches in Lake Clear, Gabriels, Paul Smiths and Saranac Lake, providing a human connection when the thinly stretched pastor isn’t available. She has been a Sister of St. Joseph for more than 50 years.
(Enterprise file photo — Peter Crowley)
"It could be administrative, it could be social outreach, it could be some kind of pastoral ministry, it could be liturgical," Bishop Terry LaValley told the Enterprise in a March 8 phone interview. "We're trying to creatively assure that all the faithful have that kind of pastoral presence, whether it's a priest or a deacon or a sister or a qualified lay person."
It's been five years since this diocese ordained a new priest, but now it has seven seminarians in the works. One will be ordained this May, another next May and another in 2015.
Still, the diocese forecasts its priests will be stretched much more thinly in the near future. As recently as 2001, the diocese had close to 100 pastors. Now it has 62, according to its website. Nine years from now, it expects to have 40. The diocese runs 99 parishes, 13 elementary schools, two high schools and one nursing home, and its priests also minister to people living in prisons, secular nursing homes, hospitals and retirement homes.
Already, the diocesan website says, "85% of our parishes are currently sharing a pastor, with 14 of our parishes now merged."
The diocese's most recent assignment plan, presented publicly last year, would cut the Tri-Lakes area from three parish priests to two, sharing one between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. The two pastors now in those villages already reach out to cover churches in Keene, Bloomingdale, Gabriels and Lake Clear. For now, they get help from local prison chaplains and retired priests who aren't all that retired: They don't have to run parishes anymore, but they work many hours saying Masses, visiting, counseling and being there for parishioners. But those retirees aren't getting any younger.
The diocese does, however, have a huge resource somewhat in reserve - tens of thousands of Catholics. It reports that about a fifth of the North Country's roughly 490,000 people are Catholic. Even if many of those are not active churchgoers, it's still a big pool.
Local pastors' take
Not quite 20 years ago, almost each Catholic parish in the North Country had a priest, and the bigger ones had more than one.
"Years ago they tell me there were five priests here in Tupper Lake," the Rev. Douglas Decker told the Enterprise by email. "I am now the only priest." He is pastor of St. Alphonsus and Holy Name churches, which were officially merged last spring after sharing a pastor for several years.
"We try to divide the Masses between two Churches," Decker wrote. "The schedule is full with services, funerals, Baptisms and weddings. There is little time for the extras like census calls and parish visitations. Some people do not realize the change in personnel and they think it is like it used to be. But it is not.
"My philosophy is I can only do one thing at a time and I take care of the most urgent. The rest is let go. This will be the plan until and when more men answer the call to (priestly) vocations. We continue to trust in the Lord as he is in charge."
The Rev. John Yonkovig, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid and St. Brendan's in Keene, put the changes in perspective by looking back to the 19th century.
"Fr. John Waters founded the parishes in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale, Gabriels and Lake Clear back in the 1890's," Yonkovig wrote. "I think of Fr. Waters going by horseback to minister to all of the people in these parishes as I drive from Lake Placid to Keene. I have it very easy!
"There will be challenging changes for Catholics in the Adirondacks in the years ahead. The multiple Masses that are schedule(d) so conveniently now will be far fewer. Some people may have to travel further than they presently do to share in Eucharist. But today people travel for groceries, banks, restaurants, gyms, post offices - if we find it valuable, we will travel.
"Already Catholics are taking greater ownership of the ministries of the Church that once were relegated to priests," Yonkovig added. "This I believe is a blessing! Active Catholics are teaching the faith in our schools and religious education programs, visiting the sick with Holy Eucharist, praying with shut-ins, becoming youth ministers, serving as permanent deacons, offering spiritual direction, attending to the needs of the poor and so many other wonderful expressions of Christ's love."
The small parishes of St. Paul's in Bloomingdale (including its mission church in Gabriels, Assumption) and St. John in the Wilderness in Lake Clear each had a priest as recently as the 1990s, and St. Bernard's in Saranac Lake had four priests of its own. Now they all share one, the Rev. Mark Reilly. But Reilly has help, and not just from retirees and prison chaplains. There's also Sister Carol Kraeger, the pastoral assistant.
Kraeger helps at all four churches, but since Reilly lives at the rectory in Saranac Lake, she mostly serves the three smaller ones, living in the rectory in Lake Clear. She provides an added human connection while Reilly handles most of the administration.
"I visit parishioners who are homebound and those in the hospital to see if there is anything we can do for them," she wrote in describing her work to the Enterprise. "I feel I am a liaison between the people and the priest.
"I also attend the weekend services and make sure all is ready for the priest when he comes," she added. "There are many little 'jobs' to be done that can save the priest's time, so he can do the ministries that religious and lay people cannot do."
'Spiritual and temporal'
"There's a tension and a frustration at times" with how pastors' administrative duties have increased as they take on more churches, Reilly said in a March 23 interview in his office.
"This pile of folders," he said, pointing to his desk, "there are a couple of different sets of parish council minutes as well as a St. Bernard's School budget committee meeting. I had meetings all week this week.
"I can do bricks and mortar and balance sheets pretty good, but is that what I was ordained for?"
Every priest, before being ordained, receives many years of education in fields such as theology and canon law. In the real world, however, much of their day-to-day work is administrative and financial, and most of them didn't get much training in this regard.
Reilly is an exception. He earned an undergraduate degree in business administration before he entered the seminary, "but you can't count on that with your priests," he said.
Could parishes hire lay administrators to manage day-to-day operations and let pastors be more pastoral?
"It's being explored as a possibility," Reilly said. In Watertown, St. Patrick's and St. Anthony's churches share a business manager, but Reilly said there are some hurdles in both canon law and civil law, having to do with parishes' hierarchical corporate structure. Unless that structure is overhauled - and none of the sources interviewed for this story suggested it would be - the pastor would still have the final say in parish matters except in rare instances when the bishop weighs in.
"As a pastor, I, ultimately, am responsible for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the parish," Reilly said, "but does that mean I have to be the one to go line by line on every item of the budget and the P&L (profit-and-loss reports) and everything else like that? Well, it'd be nice if the day comes when it's not absolutely essential that I'd be the guy."
Another way for lay people to help run their church communities is by joining a parish council. Every parish must have a finance council to advise the pastor, and many have pastoral councils, whose scope reaches beyond money. St. Paul's and St. John have pastoral councils, but St. Bernard's doesn't - something Reilly wants to remedy.
"I don't think we're only supposed to be concerned with maintenance," he said. "Ultimately, the parish should be alive ... continuing the life and work of Jesus Christ.
"That's why I throw myself a lot into adult formation," he said, referring to study sessions he conducts on the Bible and Catholic teachings. On top of the spiritual benefits of these, he said, he hopes they lead more parishioners toward the diocese's ministry training.
Reilly credited his predecessors, going back to Msgr. C.J. McAvoy in the 1970s and '80s, for getting a relatively large number of lay people involved at St. Bernard's.
"A lot of how viable the parish remains is going to depend on how well formed, how involved and how invested the members of the parish are," Reilly said.