Parishioners grapple with future in Bridgeport, Little Italy groupings
March 1, 2019

Photo courtesy Catholic News Agency
Parishioners wanting to keep Holy Family’s 9:45 a.m. Sunday Mass presented petitions to Cardinal Cupich.

By Nathan Worcester

Roman Catholic parishioners in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Bridgeport and Little Italy groupings continue to examine what the future holds for them and their churches after Archdiocesan announcements in January.

The Archdiocese on Jan. 19 made a series of public statements at a meeting at St. Barbara Church regarding the Bridgeport grouping as part of its Renew My Church initiative. Concluding an additional discernment process after an earlier series of announcements in November, representatives said that St. Therese Chinese Catholic Parish and St. Barbara Parish will form a new parish as of July 1, 2019 led by the Rev. Francis Li, who presently leads St. Therese.

The speakers, who included the Rev. Jason Malave, Cardinal Blasé Cupich’s delegate for Renew My Church, and Bishop Robert Casey, the Archdiocese’s episcopal vicar for the area, also announced that All Saints-St. Anthony Parish and St. Mary of Perpetual Help Parish will merge by July 1, 2019.

While the St. Barbara site will remain open, the All Saints-St. Anthony Parish site is scheduled for closure by June 2020. The Archdiocese also reaffirmed the controversial merger of St. Therese Chinese School with St. Barbara School under the leadership of the former.

At that meeting, the speakers did not confirm who would say Mass at St. Barbara. The Archdiocese’s director of communications and marketing, Anne Maselli, confirmed that a new pastor will be chosen to say Masses at St. Barbara and that Fr. Li would also say masses at both churches.

The Rev. Arthur Marat, current pastor of St. Barbara, “is in the process of discerning his next mission,” said Maselli. “Other priests, including an associate pastor, will be assigned to St. Barbara by the Archdiocese in late April/early May.”

When asked whether the priest or priests chosen for St. Barbara would be temporary or permanent, Maselli responded, “Typically the assignment is several years.”

She added that, “Many conversations are currently underway to provide for a smooth transition of the St. Barbara School students into the newly expanded St. Therese School.”

“The principals have been getting together with families and having open houses and meetings to kind of work through things and talk through issues,” said Kathy Bunda, a St. Barbara parent who previously started a petition on opposing the merger.

When asked if her opinion of the merger had changed, Bunda stated that it had not.

“I believe St. Barbara could have continued to thrive on its own if given the chance. However the decision was made and now we need to move on,” wrote Bunda.

Maselli was able to provide the name of the new pastor for the combined Nativity of Our Lord-St. Gabriel Parish in Bridgeport. “Fr. Bill McFarlane will be pastor of the united parishes beginning July 1, 2019,” she said. Fr. McFarlane will say Mass at both sites. He currently is pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Parish.

Little Italy grouping

The Archdiocese’s Jan. 23 announcements regarding the Little Italy grouping of churches have continued to stir controversy. At that meeting, Fr. Malave and Bishop Casey explained that the Archdiocese had decided to discontinue Sunday morning masses at Holy Family Catholic Church. This came as part of an announcement that Holy Family Parish will be combined with Notre Dame de Chicago Parish as of July 1, 2019, with Notre Dame the primary worship site, with Holy Family hosting a 5 p.m. Mass on Sunday evenings.

At the Jan 23 meeting, attendees expressed frustration that they had to write their questions about the decision on slips of paper rather than ask them directly of Fr. Malave, Bishop Casey, and the other speakers.

At Holy Family’s 9:45 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Jan. 27, many parishioners added their signatures to a “prayerful petition” to Cardinal Cupich requesting the continuation of the morning Mass.

An associated media advisory from Holy Family’s volunteer media contact, Dick Barry, emphasized that the parish was in good financial condition relative to other parishes being shuttered or consolidated.

The advisory stated, “Holy Family has a balanced operating budget, no debt, and a $1 million plus Rainy Day fund on deposit with the Archdiocese of Chicago. The parish also has a growing number of young people, with 80 baptisms recorded in 2018.”

“Our prayerful petition was over 60 feet long, plus another 310 petitions” were created online, according to the Rev. Mike Gabriel, Holy Family’s pastor. Fr. Gabriel added that he, a member of the church’s Finance Board, and a member of the parish’s Renew My Church team had presented the signatures to Cardinal Cupich on the morning of Feb. 12.

“He said, that he would review them and get back to us quickly,” added Fr. Gabriel. As of press time, no feedback to the petition had been publicly announced.

Maselli said, “All new pastors for the rest of the united parishes, as well as other parishes that are in need of a pastor, will be chosen in March and begin their new roles on July 1, 2019. The new pastors will first share the news with their current communities, and then the Archdiocese will also announce the new pastors. The new pastors will be assigned for a longer term to provide the communities with leadership stability.”

Priest Placement Board meeting at Holy Family raises questions

Notre Dame and Holy Family parishioners met at Holy Family on Feb. 20 to give feedback to the Archdiocese’s Priest Placement Board (PRB) on the qualities they were seeking in a new pastor.

The Rev. Msgr. Wayne Prist of the PRB told the diverse crowd that he and his colleagues were seeking to match priests with the parishes that needed their particular strengths. Asked when the parishioners would learn the identity of their new pastor, neither he nor Auxiliary Bishop Robert Casey, who also was in attendance, provided insight, though they emphasized that the process of selecting a priest would be completed by March 8.

Bishop Casey also emphasized that the morning Mass at Holy Family would not end during the first year of the new pastor’s tenure, which would span from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020. Bishop Casey said that the Archdiocese was “moving in the direction” of having a single Sunday morning Mass on the new parish’s “journey to oneness.”

A number of audience members stood and approached the microphone to give feedback to Msgr. Prist, Bishop Casey, and the Rev. Larry Dowling of St. Agatha Catholic Church. Fr. Dowling is the Dean of Vicariate III, which includes Holy Family and Notre Dame Parishes. Fr. Malave also spoke.

Responding to Bishop Casey’s remarks on the 9:45 a.m. Mass, one attendee said that the Archdiocese was effectively “blaming some future pastor” for ending the Mass and not taking culpability for its decision.

“It has to be a consultative process,” responded Bishop Casey. “That input from parishioners is vital… and it is listened to.

“This is not just me up here as an actor,” he added, saying that as a Catholic, he was saddened by the closures and what they represented for the Church.

One audience member, an alumnus of Holy Family’s former St. Joseph’s Colored Mission, said, “You’re losing sight of the traditions of Catholicism.”

Another attendee asked how a single pastor could say Mass at two churches on Sunday mornings starting July 1, 2019.

“That’s not our problem to address this evening,” responded Msgr. Prist, who had repeatedly emphasized that his role with the PRB was restricted to selecting the new parish’s priest. Fr. Dowling jumped in as well, saying the new pastor would receive additional personnel support.

Holy Family parishioner Ward Miller, who is also executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the Archdiocese’s decision sends a “negative message to the flock.

“I think we need more church builders,” he added. “These churches were built by pennies, nickels and dimes.”

Regarding the qualities they would want in a pastor, many attendees said they would want someone similar to Fr. Gabriel or Notre Dame’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin Hays. Neither was in attendance. Other audience members stated that social justice was a major concern at Holy Family.

Elaine Norkus, who said she attends Mass at both churches in addition to other churches in the area, struck a more hopeful note.

“I’m optimistic that something good will come,” said Norkus afterwards.

In a later interview, Holy Family Parishioner Bob Johnson echoed the enthusiasm expressed for Fr. Gabriel.

“He’s really built the bridges for people of a lot of different ethnicities, races, socioeconomic statuses, to find a common ground,” said Johnson.

Johnson was also on the Little Italy Grouping Team, which had expressed its preference that both sites remain available.

“I think there’s some confusion about what may or may not be possible,” said Johnson. “Our understanding from the meeting in January was that there could be no Sunday morning mass whatsoever at Holy Family… I think some of the comments on Feb. 20 were inconsistent with that.”