FALL RIVER — After months of study and discussion by laity and clergy in planning sessions, parishioners in one area of Fall River learned at Masses this past weekend of the steps to be taken to renew their parishes.
While these steps will mean change and some sacrifice, taken together they offer a vision for transforming struggling parishes into vibrant and sustainable Catholic communities of faith.
Creating a New Catholic Community Collaboration
In a letter to parishioners of Good Shepherd, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and St. Stanislaus Parishes, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., explained that the four communities, three of which were already engaged in joint planning since June, would now do so in a more cohesive and coordinated way –with the Cathedral- as a group of parishes to be called the Catholic Community of Central Fall River. This community will also include parishioners from the former parish of St. Bernadette, which closed in August, and St. Anne’s.
The Bishop has appointed a Franciscan priest with extensive administrative experience to lead this community and guide parishioners as they plan for the future. Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M., a New Bedford native who formerly served in national leadership posts for his religious community, will become rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral and administrator of Good Shepherd and St. Stanislaus Parishes, effective October 31. He will be assisted in pastoral ministry to the parish collaborative by Father Juan Carlos Muñoz Montoya as parochial vicar, and Father Brian Albino who will remain as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
In his letter to parishioners, Bishop da Cunha wrote, “This I know: we are better positioned as a community of faith to confront our challenges collaboratively, not separately, as individual parishes.”
He pointed to advice given to him frequently in a series of regional listening sessions earlier this year and again expressed in parish planning meetings, “…by focusing on strong lay and priestly leadership, consolidating our ministries, building on our combined human and financial resources, and reimagining the efficient use of our churches and facilities, we can plan with renewed vigor and inspiration.”
This move comes as the Fall River Diocese faces many critical challenges from changing demographics, a decline in parish membership and participation, aging facilities and fewer priests. These issues are especially felt in its cities because of the large concentration of churches there. The four parishes of the new central Fall River grouping are all within an approximate two mile area.
St. Anne’s Parish
All of these factors have impacted St. Anne’s Parish, also located in that vicinity. It has been without use of the main floor of its landmark church since 2015 because of its deteriorating condition. Bishop da Cunha addressed that situation in a separate letter to parishioners of St. Anne’s Parish this past weekend.
An architectural report estimated the cost for repairs to the church ranged from a low of $5 million to simply make the upper church useable, to $13.5 million for a complete renovation and restoration. Since last March the parish administrator, Father David Deston, and a committee of parishioners have been at work exploring the feasibility of a capital campaign to pay for it with assistance from a professional fundraiser and planner.
After investigating many fundraising options and reaching out to prospective major donors, the committee reported to Bishop da Cunha that, while most St. Anne’s parishioners were prepared to donate, overall response among donors capable of making the large gifts necessary for a successful multimillion dollar campaign “was tepid at best” and the prospect of raising the money highly unlikely. Offering no formal recommendations, they left the decision on the future of the parish to the Bishop.
Bishop da Cunha also sought additional counsel from an ad hoc group of Greater Fall River area business and community leaders concerning the likelihood of raising the funds necessary to restore the church. It was the consensus of that group as well that there were not sufficient resources to restore and maintain the iconic church.
With prayerful consideration of all the information at hand –the work of the St. Anne Parish Planning Team, input from community and business leaders, relevant parish statistics on membership and Mass attendance, and the high cost of even minimal repairs, Bishop da Cunha reached a difficult decision that he shared with parishioners in his letter this past weekend: St. Anne Parish will close.
“I do this with heavy heart, knowing the genuine deep loss you will all feel,” wrote the Bishop.
At the same time, Bishop da Cunha expressed his commitment to finding an alternative use for the church building. “It is my intention to form an ad-hoc committee whose singular mission will be the adaptive re-use of the St. Anne building, “explained the Bishop.
“This ‘Committee for the Adaptive Re-Use of St. Anne’s’ will support the Diocese in its efforts to explore other uses for the building that will preserve its architectural heritage in line with the needs of the community.”
Bishop da Cunha will be with the parishioners of St. Anne’s and celebrate the final Mass before the closing of the church on Sunday, November 25th, the last day of the Church’s liturgical year.
Parishioners from St. Anne’s are invited to join any of the neighboring parishes that will now make up the Catholic Community of Central Fall River. Beyond simply joining, they are encouraged to take an active role in the planning for this new community, to bring their vision, aspirations, and abiding faith to the parish collaboration as it evolves.
Holy Rosary and Holy Cross Chapels
With only three priests now to provide ministry at the four remaining Central Fall River parishes, it will also be necessary to close Holy Rosary and Holy Cross Chapels. Their final Masses will also be celebrated the weekend of November 25th. In recent years, both chapels have had only one weekend Mass.
“There are many details to be worked out, many questions and concerns to be considered; that is indeed the work of strategic planning,” said Bishop da Cunha in closing his letter.
“I am confident, he continued, with the talent and commitment of our clergy and laity working together, “we will establish a renewed and refreshed Catholic community of Central Fall River, and continue rebuilding our Diocese in faith and hope.”