Many Catholics in Southwestern Indiana go to church and belong to a parish or congregation. Times are changing for many, who may be going to the same church building but belonging to a new parish.
Mergers announced in the last two years have affected more than half of the parishes in the 12-county Catholic Diocese of Evansville, as new parishes are being formed from two or more formerly independent parishes.
For example, on July 1, Christ the King and Holy Spirit churches in Evansville merged into Annunciation Parish. What is important is “not losing the rich tradition of both congregations while at the same time not getting stuck in the past,” says pastor Rev. Alex Zenthoefer.
“I think our biggest challenge has been effective communication,” says Missy Parkison, evangelization coordinator for the new parish. The people of the two faith communities “needed to get to know one another on many levels” as they moved through the merging process.
“As many people as possible” were engaged in choosing the new name for the parish and learning about worship, ministries, staff, history and tradition, school culture, and details regarding finances and facilities, Parkison added.
“It would have been easy to reduce this merger to a business transaction, because there are a lot of business-related issues that have to be resolved,” says Zenthoefer. “But I am not a businessman and I am not interested in being the CEO of a company. I am a priest. I was ordained to serve God’s people, to help them along the path of salvation and to participate in the Kingdom of God. It has been a challenge for me to keep this as the focus of our efforts.”
The parish is not its buildings and facilities, says Parkison. “We are … a family of believers united by a common understanding and expression of faith.”
Bishop Charles C. Thompson announced in September 2013 that 24 parishes were being merged into 10 new parishes. Christ the King and Holy Spirit were among them.
In September 2014, Thompson announced another round of mergers, with six new parishes to be established from 15 existing parishes. Mergers are to be completed in 2016, and Zenthoefer hopes other parishes will have good experiences, too.
“I have been inspired by the sense of community that has been established (at the newly merged parish),” says Zenthoefer. “At first, people said that the communities are just too different and it will never work. But people are beginning to let go of preconceptions; they have been willing to sacrifice for the sake of this new community; and they have really decided that this parish is important to them.”
Zenthoefer says it is necessary for parish leaders and planners to never forget that “Christ is the reason for our existence. We could handle the loss of parishioners or financial struggles or hurt feelings, but without Christ we have no right to be called a parish. And this is something that we have to continually evaluate so that we make sure we are not trying to build our own kingdom rather than God’s.”
Mergers may be a new phase in local Catholic history, but the times have always been changing — from the 1944 formation of the Diocese of Evansville, through the post-World War II boom years and establishment of many new parishes and overcrowded schools, the ensuing decline in family size, the changes of the Second Vatican Council, and finally the current adjustment to fewer available priests.
Parishes once had nuns in the schools and multiple priests in the rectories. Laypersons had limited roles. Today, there are just 39 active priests serving in the parishes of the diocese, while some 750 laypersons are engaged full-time in parish and school ministry, along with another 750 laypersons with part-time responsibilities. Many parishes also have deacons officiating at selected rites.
Although parish staffing studies and projections started under the leadership of Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger in the mid-1990s, and strategic planning formally begin in 2008, the immensity of needed change burst into public view in the past two years.
The two recent announcements came with a repeated promise from Bishop Thompson: “No churches are being closed at this time.” That promise has been kept.
At merging parishes, “the biggest concerns are about Mass times,” says Father Henry Kuykendall, pastor of Nativity Parish. Nativity and Holy Rosary parishes will merge in 2016. Kuykendall will retire at the end of this year.
When parishes merge, a single staff is responsible for mission and ministry, for responsible stewardship of parish resources, and ultimately, “for the Kingdom of God and the salvation of souls,” says Bishop Thompson.
The 2013 announcements included the mergers of the following Evansville parishes:
• Christ the King and Holy Spirit, now established as Annunciation Parish.
• St. Mary and St. John the Evangelist, now established as Sts. Mary and John Parish.
• St. Boniface, St. Agnes, and Sacred Heart.
• Holy Rosary and Nativity.
Mergers announced outside of Evansville:
• Parishes in Poseyville and New Harmony.
• Parishes in Chrisney and New Boston.
• Parishes in Montgomery and Cannelburg.
• Parishes in Boonville and Red Brush.
• Three Spencer County parishes in Dale, Santa Claus, and Mariah Hill.
• Four Daviess County parishes in Loogootee, Whitfield, Shoals, and Bramble.
Mergers announced in 2014 include:
• Evansville parishes St. Anthony and St. Joseph.
• Evansville parishes Good Shepherd and St. Theresa.
• Parishes in Schnellville and St. Anthony.
• Parishes in Dubois and Celestine.
• Five parishes in and around Vincennes.
A unique plan is in place for Holy Trinity Church in Evansville. The parish will merge with the previously announced Sts. Mary and John Parish, but the church building will become an Oratory used for special occasions, with St. John Parish in Daylight responsible for its operation.
In addition to the mergers, some parishes will be linked together, maintaining separate identities but having one pastor. As the reorganization process matures, the number of parishes in the diocese will drop from 69 in 2011 to 46 in 2016. Even that smaller number could change as a result of the untimely death of a pastor or other unpredictable events.
Recent changes for Catholics also include the introduction of priests from other countries.
“I found out we were only one of five dioceses in the country without international priests,” says Thompson. Today there are two priests from India and one each from Nigeria and Kenya who assist in parishes, celebrating Mass and the Sacraments.
“As we continue to reorganize parishes… we remain focused on keeping the Diocese of Evansville a lively, faith-filled community,” says Thompson. The people “continue to see the Holy Spirit guide them as they come together to form new parish communities.”
The total number of Catholics in the diocese is now listed as 79,504 — that’s lower than previous reports, but more accurate, according to Tim McGuire, chief operating officer.
“We have implemented PDS [Parish Data Systems] at the diocesan level,” says McGuire. “One of the benefits is that we are able to identify families that are registered at multiple parishes. As a result, we have been working with the parishes to include them in only one parish. The net result is that we haven’t lost Catholics but now we have better data.”
For more information about the Catholic Diocese of Evansville, visit evdio.org.