Cumberland-area parishes consider uniting into one faith community

Antoinette Wiseman gets a unique perspective on the weekend congregation at St. Patrick in Cumberland each week.

As an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, the longtime parishioner is able to survey the entire congregation from the front of the church. What has struck her in recent years is how different the crowd is from 40 years ago: it’s older and smaller.

“There’s a dramatic difference in the number of people who attend Mass,” Wiseman said.

St. Patrick isn’t alone.

Ss. Peter and Paul in Cumberland, St. Mary in Cumberland, St. Ambrose in Cresaptown and St. Patrick in Mount Savage have also suffered declining attendance. As tire manufacturing, brewing and other industries have left Allegany County, young people followed.

Cumberland-area parishes currently have two funerals for every baptism. One third of registered parishioners are age 60 or older. The city’s population has declined from 30,000 in 1979 to 20,859 today, while the number of priests serving the five parishes has plummeted from 13 to four – the result of a clergy shortage.

After two years of intensive study and planning, the Mountain Maryland Regional Catholic Planning Commission (MMRCPC) has come up with a plan that area leaders believe will strengthen the Catholic community and make it more responsive to demographic changes.

The proposal, which still must be approved by Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, would reconfigure the parishes in the Cumberland area to form a single faith community with a new name. The new parish would have one staff, one pastoral council, one finance committee, one set of corporators, one religious education program and one youth ministry program.

The new parish would have four worship sites where Mass will be celebrated: St. Ambrose, St. Mary, St. Patrick (Cumberland) and Ss. Peter and Paul.

St. Patrick in Mount Savage would become a worship station available for prayer services, baptisms, marriages and funerals. Regular Masses would no longer be celebrated there.

“I think the plan gives us a chance to work together for a really vibrant church in the area,” said Wiseman, a member of the MMRCPC. “Coming together as one parish allows us to make the best use of the number of people we have and to capitalize on the strengths we have – to have people working together instead of competing with one another.”

Father Edward Hendricks, MMRCPC chair, said the reduction in the number of Masses will make churches more full and promote a greater sense of liturgical celebration. The parishes have already reduced their Mass schedules from 12 to 9 earlier this year. Without regular Masses in Mount Savage, that number will go down to 8.

According to the most recent data available, Sunday Mass attendance in the area has decreased by 8 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Time for collaboration

Father Hendricks noted that three Capuchin Franciscans, a religious order that has long staffed Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Ambrose, would take over the pastoral leadership of the new parish.

Monsignor James Hannon, who has temporarily served as pastor of St. Patrick, Cumberland, St. Mary and St. Patrick, Mount Savage – in addition to leading six parishes west of Cumberland, would return to ministering solely at the “Mountain Maryland Six.”

Father Hendricks, chaplain for Frostburg State University and archdiocesan director of the Office of Higher Education Ministry and Campus Ministry, said each church building would retain its name under the reconfiguration. The new name of the parish would be determined at a later date, subject to the approval of the archbishop.

Father Hendricks acknowledged that there are mixed emotions among parishioners about the formation of a new parish.

“It’s a major change and that’s always very difficult,” Father Hendricks said. “Apprehension is a pretty predominant emotion because we don’t have all the answers at this point.”

The priest said it is unclear which buildings would be used for specific ministries. He noted that the possible selling of ancillary buildings could realize financial resources for the new parish, but emphasized that no decisions have been made. Endowments that have been established to benefit specific parishes would continue to benefit the churches for which they were designated, he said.

Having a consolidated program could strengthen the religious education program by having a larger number of students come together for religious education and youth ministry, he said. All the parishes would begin using the same textbooks.

“It brings a sense of stability,” Father Hendricks said. “If things stay the same, I’m not sure each parish can survive autonomously.”

Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, whose Seton Vicariate includes Cumberland, said the planning commission was established by the regional council, which will review the proposal before it is considered by the archbishop.

“I think that the archbishop would be presented the plan in June,” Bishop Rozanski said. “Soon after that, we would expect he would make a decision.”

Bishop Rozanski said he was impressed by the collaboration exhibited by the Cumberland faithful throughout the process.

“I really feel that those involved in the planning are giving to the archbishop their best reflection and thinking on the realities in Mountain Maryland,” he said. “This was really a joint effort among the people of the parishes, the archdiocesan priest and the Capuchin friars. The planning commission did everything they could to keep everyone informed.”

Archdiocesan offices – human resources, pastoral planning, fiscal services, facilities management and the chancery – will assist in implementing the changes if they are approved.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Michael Masich, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Ambrose and a member of the planning commission, said parishioners have been honest about their feelings as the planning commission sought feedback.

“When we came to these decisions, it was after a lot of sweat, tears, prayer and discussion,” said Father Masich, who has also worked in area hospital and sacramental ministries. “We’re not just dealing with buildings. We are dealing with people’s faith.”

The Capuchins have been in Cumberland since 1864 and remain committed to the region, Father Masich said. The friars have already relocated their friary from Ss. Peter and Paul to St. Mary.

A new logo has been designed as a symbol of greater cooperation among the Cumberland-area parishes, Father Masich said. Featuring a glowing sun hanging over a mountain, the logo will be used in a common bulletin.

“You can look at it either as the sun rising or the sun setting over the mountain,” Father Masich said. “I see it as the sun rising.”

There will be a 7 p.m. town meeting April 28 at St. Mary in Cumberland to discuss the proposal. Bishop Rozanski will attend.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.