December 6, 2013

St. Pius Parish closes, merges into St. Charles Borromeo Parish

By John Shaughnessy

She knows the pain and the sadness that Catholics feel deeply when their longtime parish is scheduled to be closed and merged with another parish.

Yet Franciscan Sister Linda Bates also witnessed a promising moment for the future following a recent Sunday Mass at St. Pius Church in Ripley County—the parish that closed on Dec. 1 and is merging with St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Milan.

Standing by a table at the back of the church, Sister Linda greeted the St. Pius parishioners and gave them a form that offered them the opportunity to be a lector, an usher or an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at St. Charles, or to join the St. Charles’ men’s club or the women’s solidarity.

“The thing that really struck me was that a number of people filled out the forms right there, instead of taking them home,” said Sister Linda, who became the administrator of St. Charles Borromeo Parish on Dec. 1. “They are ready to be parishioners at their new parish. I was really impressed by that.”

St. Pius Parish was one of the 12 parishes in the Batesville Deanery that was selected earlier this year to be merged with a nearby parish—the result of the “Connected in the Spirit” planning process that involved Catholics in southeastern Indiana during the past two years.

While many members of St. Pius have accepted the merger, others haven’t. Indeed, an appeal of the decision to close St. Pius Parish has been made to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican.

“The appeal is now with the congregation, and we will await their decision on the appeal,” said Father Stanley Pondo, vicar judicial for the archdiocese. “Based upon previous experiences with them, we anticipate a decision sometime in the spring.”

As the appeal process unfolds, the transition continues. St. Pius Parish had its closing Mass on Dec. 1, followed by a meal in the parish hall. On Dec. 15 at St. Charles Borromeo Church, the 10:30 a.m. Mass will mark the merger of the two parishes. Following that Mass, the current members of St. Charles Parish will welcome their newest members with a luncheon.

“St. Charles has been very open to accepting and welcoming the folks who want to come over from St. Pius,” said Sister Linda. “Many of the people already know each other because the two parishes have had religious education classes together at St. Charles for years. While their children have religious ed, the parents sit together and drink coffee together.”

Those connections provide hope for the merger and the future, but there is also the reality of pain in the present, says Tony Lonneman, who served as the most recent parish council president at St. Pius.

“It’s difficult, maybe more difficult for some than others,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of parishioners who are fourth and maybe even fifth generations of the church. They’re descendants of the original family—the Volz family— that donated the property and built the church. It’s the original church. It was 150 years old in 2009. The church has been well-maintained, and it’s in very good condition.”

Lonneman paused before sharing another comment that showed the conflicting emotions that St. Pius parishioners have had to deal with concerning the closing and the merger.

“While we regret the loss of the parish and wish it wasn’t happening, we view the merger similar to a marriage when two families come together,” he said. “St. Charles has been right there with us. They’re very supportive. They’ve reached out to us. That part of it is OK. But the loss of our parish will take a long time for people to overcome.”

One of the plans that brings St. Pius parishioners some measure of solace is the archdiocese’s offer that St. Pius Church can still be the site of special Masses for funerals, marriages and feast days for the foreseeable future.

“It’s still our hope that our kids can go to the church for these occasions,” Lonneman said. “We want St. Pius to still be a part of the community in some fashion.”

The members of St. Charles Parish want the parishioners of St. Pius to feel welcome at their new home, according to Joe Prickel, parish council president at St. Charles. He said the two parishes have long had a connection through sharing religious education classes and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program.

“We’ve treated them as a sister parish,” Prickel said. “We know they’re hurting. You just make sure you listen to people and let them get their frustrations out. We sent all of them a postcard, welcoming them and listing all our Mass times.”

St. Charles is also working with St. Pius so the lay duties during the Dec. 15 Mass, signifying the merger, are shared.

“It will be our first Mass together,” Prickel said. “We want them to feel welcome.”

That hope is shared by Father Frank Eckstein, who has served as the sacramental minister at both parishes for the past 12 years.

“At one Mass, I told the people at St. Pius that the people of St. Charles want them to feel welcome, just as the people of St. Pius would do if the situation was reversed,” says Father Eckstein, a retired priest who will continue to celebrate the sacraments at St. Charles Parish.

“My hope is that the negative feelings and reluctance will go away, and they will feel comfortable being one faith family. I believe it will happen, but it’s going to take time.” †

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