Eighteen Catholic parishes north of Boston are preparing to take part in the second phase of a major reorganization plan intended to revitalize the Archdiocese of Boston.
The parishes — ranging from rural outposts in Topsfield and Westford to urban churches in Gloucester and Lowell — have been grouped into nine collaboratives as part of a new pastoral plan called Disciples in Mission.
No parish will close, but a collaborative will be led by a single pastor, and share priests, staff, facilities and other resources, according to the archdiocese.
Meetings to explain the new structure will be held at the 44 parishes chosen for the second phase through Nov. 18, said the Rev. Paul Soper, head of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning.
“The parishes will stay open, but they will operate differently,” said Soper, who is leading the parish meetings. “That’s the message we’re bringing to people as we meet with them.”
The new pastoral plan aims to address pressing issues facing parishes of all sizes: a lack of priests, declining Mass attendance, aging facilities, and weak finances, among other issues.
The archdiocese plans to group its 288 parishes into 135 collaboratives over the next seven years. In June, the first phase of the plan formed 12 collaboratives, including those located in Beverly, Billerica, Lynn, Lynnfield, Methuen and Salem.
The archdiocese originally hoped to have all collaboratives formed in five years, but the schedule has been extended by two years, Soper said.
“Once the first phase got underway, very quickly it became clear to us that we had to change our timetable dramatically,” Soper said. “We’re now working at a more realistic pace.”
For the second phase, the archdiocese chose 44 parishes to form 21 new collaboratives that will start on June 3.
A new pastor for each collaborative could be chosen by Christmas with additional clergy assignments decided in early 2014, the archdiocese said.
Collaboratives will have to form new parish and finance councils, and develop a local plan to meet the spiritual needs of parishioners, and reach out to Catholics who may no longer attend Mass, Soper said.
“Evangelization is at the core of what we’re doing here,” Soper said. “Evangelization is not about imparting doctrine, or knowledge or morales. It’s about witnessing a Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Some local pastors say the new pastoral plan is the only sure route to survival.
“I’m very enthused about the direction we’re going in,” said the Rev. Peter Quinn, pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Westford. “It’s really the only direction we can go in. We can’t stay doing things the way we have been. It’s just not going to work.”
“This plan is all about keeping parishes open, viable and having them grow stronger,” said the Rev. Louis Palmieri, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Amesbury and Star of the Sea Parish in Salisbury.
Most local parishes have been put into collaboratives with churches located in the same city or a neighboring town.
But some very large parishes, such as St. Michael in North Andover, have not been paired with any other church, but will still function as a collaborative, Soper said.
“That’s a huge, huge parish,” Soper said of St. Michael, which has an average weekend Mass attendance of 2,594, according to the archdiocese. “There really was no natural partner for them. In some cases, whether because of geography or ministry, we have a stand-alone collaborative.”
In some cases, such as in Amesbury, Salisbury and Saugus, and Wilmington, a collaborative won’t be breaking entirely new ground. Despite the closing of more than 60 parishes starting in 2004, a priest shortage already forced small parishes to start sharing priests and resources years ago.
In Saugus, for example, the Rev. Daniel McCoy was assigned as a co-pastor to lead St. Margaret and Blessed Sacrament parishes in 2005. Since then, the two parishes have adjusted Mass schedules and launched a single website, among other joint ventures. Since 2011, McCoy has been the only pastor assigned to the two churches, he said.
“We’re already doing a lot together,” McCoy said. “It took some adjustment, but for the most part people were very understanding and accommodating.”
Palmieri believes Amesbury and Salisbury parishes are also well-prepared to form a collaborative. “We’ve really been an unofficial collaborative for about three years now,” said Palmieri. “I don’t think there is going to be any great change here.”
But a collaborative will also be managed differently, Soper noted,
A new pastoral council, with representatives of each parish, will have to be formed. Parish bank accounts will remain separate, but a new financial council will oversee the collaborative, according to the archdiocese.
Intense training lies ahead for pastors, clergy, and staff. And collaboratives will have to write their own plan to carry out the all-important task of evangelization, Soper said.
“In some cases, parishes won’t have to start to get to know each other, which is a huge help,” he said. “But they still have to refocus on the task of evangelization. And there will be structural change that we hope will energize people.”