Last month we informed you about the decision-making process in Philadelphia, where both Ordinariate groups are discerning whether they should merge and take over a free church building from the Archdiocese. In July plans were being made to visit Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bridgeport.
In the August issue of The Philadelphia Ordinariate Post, Fr. David Ousley reports on how the story is unfolding:
Dear parishioners and friends,
Last month I wrote to you about the possibility of St Michael’s and Newman coming together at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Bridgeport. The church is available as the result of the merger of Mount Carmel with Sacred Heart in Swedesburg last year. Members of both congregations gathered for a visit there on July 26th, and we are now reflecting on what we saw.
Meanwhile, on the property front: just to make life complicated (and interesting), it turns out that there is another available property which might suit our needs, St Gertrude’s in West Conshohocken. This parish merged with three nearby parishes in Conshohocken last summer; St Matthew’s is the surviving parish. St Gertrude’s dates from the days when there was no bridge in Conshohocken, and ministered to the Catholics on the south side of the river. It was (apparently) never a large parish, and for some years recently St Gertrude’s shared a priest with St Mary’s in Conshohocken. One of the auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese lived in the rectory. The school and convent were sold to the Borough some ten years ago, and were torn down to create a park across the street from the church. The property now comprises the church (with hall below) and rectory, with a parking lot. I’m grateful to Fr Thomas Heron, the Pastor of St Matthew’s for letting us take a look at it.
As we did with Mount Carmel, we will visit after the Sunday morning Mass at St Michael’s – about 11 a.m. at St Gertrude’s – on August 9th. We had a very good turnout for the Mount Carmel visit, and I hope for the same for St Gertrude’s. The church is on Bullock Avenue, just off Route 23 in West Conshohocken. Maps will be available at St Michael’s, and I can provide navigational help for Newman folk if needed. (It was not needed for Mount Carmel!) The same discernment questions apply to St Gertrude’s as to Mount Carmel, and we will be talking them over after the visit – August 9th after the evening service at Newman, and August 16th at coffee hour at St Michael’s. I should note that St Madeleine Sophie remains a possibility, though it has not seemed to work for a number of the Newman folk, and so we have been looking for another location other than Mount Airy.
The goal in considering the move is two-fold: to get the two congregations together at a location that will work for both, and to find a place where we can settle permanently. The advantages of a merger are not hard to see: it will get us much closer to “critical mass,” a larger congregation is more attractive to potential members, our financial resources will be greater, we would be better able to support a property of our own. One larger congregation will be more viable than two small ones.
This means there are really two questions before us: location and merger. They are related, in that St Michael’s and Newman have different needs regarding location. St Michael’s folk come from the city and from afar, and thus need a location with Septa access and expressway convenience. Newman folk are largely on the Main Line and have understood their mission in terms of the Main Line, and thus need to be accessible to the Main Line. So part of the discussion is about location: neither current location is good for both congregations.
The other part is about the merger. Statistically, church mergers are rarely successful, if one gauges success by a happy new parish with all or most of the people involved from the merging congregations active in the new. Of course, most mergers are the result of declining numbers and finances, which is not the case for us. Nevertheless, we need to be careful about how we go about it. Each congregation has things it specially values about its life, and would not wish to lose. We will want to be sure the best of each is carried into the new. We want the new to be more than the sum of the parts. Since the new will be just that – new – the change carries the inevitable fear of a loss of identity. Even where everyone is behind the merger, there is still much to be done. People need to get to know one another. Different ways of doing things need to be reconciled. New Pastoral and Finance Councils need to be put in place. And so on.
So there are two processes: considering locations and properties, and exploring the merger of St Michael’s and Newman. It will be necessary for the people of the two congregations to get to know one another, and to start working together. Each community will need to understand what makes the other one tick: how its mission is understood, what is specially important in its common life, how it has been formed by its history, etc. There will be a number of steps in this process. As suggested in one of our recent meetings, a good place to start is with an informal social event where people can get to know each other better. With vacations and other conflicts, it seems best not to attempt it in August nor on Labor Day weekend. Hopefully everyone will be back by September 13th, when I invite you all to a pot-luck lunch at the rectory after the St Michael’s Mass. I infer from the excellent turnout of Newman people for our site visit that this is a possible time, even though the distance is greater. Please come! Of course, you are also welcome to visit the other parish: Newman folk can visit St Michaels’ at 9 on Sunday morning at Holy Cross in Mount Airy, and St Michael’s folk can visit Newman at Our Lady of the Assumption in Strafford at 6 Sunday evenings.
The basic question of course is what God is calling us to do. Our discernment of that question touches on many things: our mission in the Philadelphia area, the accessibility of the location to our present congregations and potential parishioners, how we can support the work of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese as well as the Ordinariate, and (inevitably) financial realities. Even though this is summer, and people are away from time to time, I hope we can move the process along. Both merger and local decisions require time and consideration, and cannot be made instantly. I am grateful for the generous participation of everyone from Newman and St Michael’s in this process of discerning and planning for our future.
Fr. David Ousley