BILLERICA — As the Rev. Shawn Allen celebrates Mass in Saint Theresa of Lisieux Church this Easter, he will also be praying for the birth of a new Catholic community in town.
“Easter is our resurrection season,” said Allen, pastor at Saint Theresa for 18 months. “We recognize that we have new life. That’s what we have to look for in the town of Billerica.”
On July 1, Saint Theresa will join with the parishes of Saint Andrew and Saint Mary to form a collaborative as part of a major reorganization of the Archdiocese of Boston. Allen will be pastor of all three Billerica parishes.
“I am going to be equally the pastor of St. Mary and St. Andrew,” said Allen, 51, a former banker who was ordained as a priest 14 years ago. “I’ll be responsible for the souls of all Catholics in town.”
Billerica is one of 12 collaboratives, or groups of parishes, chosen for the first phase of a new pastoral plan called Disciples in Mission. The archdiocese’s 288 parishes will be grouped into 135 collaboratives, each led by one pastor.
No parishes will close or merge under the plan, which will be phased in over the next five years. Each collaborative will also share priests, deacons, lay staff, facilities, and other resources. At its heart, the plan rests on evangelization, a call for Catholics to help rebuild a church still deeply wounded by the clergy sex-abuse scandal and painful parish closings.
“We’ve got to get more people back to church,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning. “You don’t do that by closing parishes. You do that by strengthening them.’’
The sharp decline is evident in weekend Mass attendance figures compiled by the archdiocese for local parishes chosen for the first phase. From 1992 to 2012, most parishes saw double-digit percentage declines in weekend Mass attendance. In Billerica, for example, attendance at Saint Theresa dropped 47 percent over the period, 26 percent at Saint Mary, and 34 percent at Saint Andrew.
Pope Francis has pledged to rebuild the church through evangelization and outreach, particularly to the weak and the poor. The new pope’s emphasis could help inspire local Catholics, Soper said.
“His timing couldn’t be better for us here in Boston,” said Soper, a former pastor of the now-closed St. Alphonsus Church on the Beverly/Danvers line. “He seems to recognize that his life is a symbol, that the choices he makes will have an effect on others. As Catholics, that’s true for all of us.”
Some parishioners are hopeful about the changes planned for their churches.
“We’re all the children of one God,” said Olga Diaz, 90, who travels to Saint Theresa from Tewksbury for Sunday Mass. “Why not be together?”
“The people here are wonderful,” said Anita Johnson, 65, who joined Saint Theresa seven years ago after moving to Billerica to be closer to her grandchildren. Her husband, Bob, sings in the choir.
“We’ve always felt like we’ve belonged here,” she said. “Father Shawn is very smart, very energetic. I have faith he’ll lead us well.”
Six of the 12 collaboratives are located north of Boston, in Beverly, Billerica, Lynn, Lynnfield, Methuen, and Salem. New pastors already have been named to lead each, and additional priests will be assigned by June. Each collaborative will officially start on July 1, according to the archdiocese.
The local collaboratives reflect the diversity of the church, with Masses said in multiple languages, including Congolese and Haitian-Creole in Lynn, and Polish and Spanish in Salem.
“There were more parishes ready to go in the north region than any other place,” said Soper. “They’ve had excellent pastors, working hard to get ready for this.”
Still, some wonder about the unknown.
“I don’t really know how it’s going to work,” said Rebecca Sencaba, 36, a lifelong parishioner at Saint Theresa who attends weekly Mass with her husband and two young children. “This parish is so important to me. We’ll still be faithful, but we’ll just see how it goes.”
“I really don’t know what to expect,” said John Ryan, 42, who attends Saint Theresa with his wife and five children. “I’m glad Father Shawn will still be the pastor here, but I know we’ll be seeing less of him.”
In preparation for the changes, pastors, clergy, and staff will have intensive training provided by the Catholic Leadership Institute over the next few months. The archdiocese also has hired an executive coach to advise pastors on management skills.
“We’re putting a lot on their shoulders; therefore it only makes sense to give them the best support we can,” Soper said.
New parish councils, finance councils, and other committees will be formed. New Mass schedules will have to be determined, along with decisions about which rectories and other church buildings to utilize. Although the collaboratives become official in July, pastoral changes will be slowly introduced over the next year. Each collaborative has until December 2014 to submit a plan to the archdiocese outlining how it will operate. Mass schedules, housing for priests, and efforts to reach out to new or non-attending Catholics must be included, according to the archdiocese.
“We want to make sure that people know we are all in this together,” said Allen, a Lawrence native who grew up in Saint Patrick Parish there. “We’re going to listen to representatives of each parish, to learn from their experience.”
In most cases, clergy assignments will bring a new pastoral team to a collaborative. Along with new pastors, most parish priests will likely be reassigned in June, Soper said.
“It could be very hard for a [parish priest], when a new pastor comes in, to have to reach out and expand” to new parishes, he said.
Assignments for retired priests, who live in rectories and help out with saying Mass, will be decided on a case-by-case basis, he added. “It will be up to Cardinal Sean [O’Malley],” Soper said.
As pastor, Allen wants each parish to keep its own identity and traditions. Saint Andrew is the oldest Catholic church in town, built in 1868 in North Billerica. Saint Mary, in the Pinehurst neighborhood on the southern end of town, has an active women’s group. Saint Theresa, located in the middle of the two parishes, has an active Society of St. Vincent de Paul dedicated to helping the needy.
“Each parish has its own character, and it will maintain its own character,” Allen said.
Change will come slowly. “The most dramatic thing, I think for people initially, will be the Mass schedule,” he said in an interview at the Saint Theresa parish office. “I have no vision yet of what that will be. We still have to work that out.”
Communication, from the weekly bulletin to Facebook, will be key to the collaborative’s success, he said.
Already, he has purchased three Internet domain names: billericacatholics.com/org/net. A Facebook page will be updated with news of all three parishes, and he plans to expand his presence on Twitter.
“Whatever people use today to communicate, we’ll use it,” said Allen, an affable man with an easy smile.
“We have to keep the people we have involved, and think of ways to bring people back to church. We can’t just expect them to come to us because we put a sign out front of our churches.”