Western MD parishes overcome challenges to form one parish family

By Maria Wiering
Twitter: @ReviewWiering
CUMBERLAND – St. Mary’s basement bustled with activity Sept. 29 as the church hosted Our Lady of the Mountains’ first yard, soup and bake sale. Parishioners and their neighbors scoured the long tables lined with used items while volunteers offered soup samples and hawked homemade pies and cookies.
In the past, the yard sale was a large annual fundraiser at St. Mary. This year, expectations were high, but not only for revenue. The event was the first fundraiser to unite members of the five Cumberland-area churches that consolidated into one parish last fall.
The pastor, Capuchin Franciscan Father Gregory Chervenak, hoped the event would deepen his parishioners’ bonds.
To see a photo slideshow from Our Lady of the Mountains Parish, navigate the arrows below.
A once-thriving industrial center, Cumberland was Maryland’s second largest city in the Victorian Age and wistfully keeps the title “Queen City.” It claims an impressive history – George Washington did indeed sleep there, at the old Fort Cumberland, next to the hilltop Shrine of Ss. Peter and Paul.
The city’s status and population diminished as industrial plants closed or relocated, and now the Allegany County valley town has about 20,800 residents – half it did in 1940.
Known for a spire-studded skyline, Cumberland once supported three Catholic parishes – St. Patrick, St. Mary and Ss. Peter and Paul, all with strong allegiances to immigrant heritages. St. Ambrose and a second St. Patrick were in nearby Cresaptown and Mount Savage, with other parishes across the river in West Virginia. 
In 2009, a third of Cumberland’s Catholics were 60 or older, and funerals were twice as common as baptisms. The Archdiocese of Baltimore began to explore ways to serve Cumberland’s pastoral needs in the face of population decline and a priest shortage.
By 2010, no archdiocesan priests were assigned to any of the five parishes, and the Capuchin Franciscans – who have long ministered in the area and once had an impressive monastery next to Ss. Peter and Paul – were celebrating all five parishes’ Masses. By April 2011, the parishes were transitioning to a single entity, which that September officially became Our Lady of the Mountains– “a parish with five churches,” Father Chervenak said.
In the year since, Father Chervenak and his team – fellow Capuchins Father Stephen B. Fernandez and Father Bernard Finerty, Deacon Loren Mooney and business manager Edward Jones – have navigated the often-turbulent waters of merging practices, paperwork and personalities into a shared identity.
It is a work in progress, they acknowledge, but it is happening. Father Chervenak called the past 12 months a year of “information gathering and testing.”
“It was a learning process of being patient and observing, because each place had a fine long heritage, as well as customs,” said Father Chervenak, who became the parish’s pastor in summer 2011.
The situation was often awkward and unsure, he said. There were five different ways of distributing Communion, hosting social events, collecting money, celebrating Advent. Team members missed things, like the Christmas pageant St. Ambrose always held. They sometimes offended people by not knowing the way something had always been done, and they acknowledge they are still learning.
Parish attendance is still not where it was before the transition, and financial donations were down for awhile, Father Chervenak said.
With the help of a 15-member parish council, the pastoral team has tried to make parish life as uniform as possible. Weekend liturgies are the same at each parish, down to the music and hymnals.
Six weekend Masses are celebrated at St. Patrick, Cumberland; St. Mary; St. Ambrose; and St. Patrick, Mount Savage. Ss. Peter and Paul holds weekday Masses.
St. Patrick hosts the parish office, St. Mary is next door to the Capuchin friary and Ss. Peter and Paul is home to the gift shop and charitable outreach.
The parish has a close relationship with Bishop Walsh School, which formed in 1966 with the merging of Cumberland’s Catholic high schools. It now has students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12.
Managing the five church plants is labor and time intensive, said Jones, who also manages the nearby Mountain Four Parishes: St. Michael, Frostburg; St. Ann, Grantsville; St. Joseph, Midland; and St. Peter, Westernport. With the exception of St. Ambrose, which was built in the 1950s, the churches and most accompanying buildings are at least a century old.
Some parishioners have adjusted to the changes better than others. Standing in her produce field on Cumberland’s outskirts, farmer Judy Stegmaier was quick to correct herself after saying she is a parishioner of St. Mary, switching her response to “Our Lady of the Mountains.”
The parish’s only choice is to come together, she said.
Stegmaier, 63, was one of 25 women who made soup at St. Ambrose to prepare for the sale. St. Ambrose held an annual soup sale, and Shirley King, 70, has its preparation down to a science. She directed this year’s soup-making as well, and women from all of the parishes volunteered to help. Instead of taking two long days, as it had in years before, they made 628 quarts of soup in seven hours.
Bill Mantheiy, 75, grew up attending St. Mary – his stepfather helped to build it in 1903. The yard/soup/bake sale’s success was a sign that “we really are together,” he said. “The whole area is growing, but the parishes are holding their own.”
Last Christmas, Our Lady of the Mountains hosted a single Christmas gift drive for the poor. It went well, and it served as a milestone for the parish’s unity, Deacon Mooney said.
Not all Catholics accepted the merger, especially some members of Ss. Peter and Paul who long for a weekend Mass at the church. Several, including Barbara Nies, 75, now attend West Virginia parishes. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about Ss. Peter and Paul, the church where she received all of her sacraments and used to give tours.
As the yard sale’s chairperson, Carol Myers, 61, proves not all of the shrine’s members resisted the transition. She now attends Mass at St. Mary, and said that volunteering has helped her to meet other parishioners.
“People need to work together and have fun,” she said.
Cathy Pannone, 65, tries to build bridges among parishioners where she can. She spearheaded a painting project in St. Mary’s basement this summer featuring all five churches’ steeples and the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the name “Our Lady of the Mountains” and the words “evangelize, worship, serve.”
For her, the greatest challenges have been to let others lead and adjusting to doing things differently, she said.
As for the parish overall, “It’s a struggle, but it’s working and it’s worth the effort,” she said, pointing to a successful parish picnic Aug. 26 that drew 300 people, despite rain.
Twice a month, Pannone brings Communion to Catholic hospital patients. Sometimes people “gripe” about the merger, she said. She listens, and when they finish listing grievances, she holds up the Eucharist.
“I say, ‘It’s about this. It’s not about the building, it’s not about a place, it’s about the Eucharist,’” she said. “That kind of softens it.”
Copyright (c) Oct. 15, 2012 CatholicReview.org 

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