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Difficult merger ahead for area Catholic community

Lydia Coutré • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:02 AM

“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” Teasley said before the service. “It’s family, community, friendship. ... It’s a big part of our life. I know that we should work toward making the change work the same way, but it’s going to be hard.”

St. Anthony’s will be closed in May 2012 (Pentecost), and the new Grand Haven-based parish will be called St. Patrick-St. Anthony Catholic Community.

John Strazanac, parish administrator at St. Patrick’s, said the two churches have been blending for the past 10 years.

The merger is the outcome of a study done by Meitler Consultants for all churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

“The study was conducted beginning in 2009 and concluded in 2010 with the determinations that a number of churches within the diocese would be merged with larger churches just because of the number of parishioners attending,” Strazanac said.

The driving force behind the merger is a shortage of priests, Strazanac said.

Within the Grand Haven Deanery, there are seven priests serving 11 parishes. One will be retiring next year, said the Rev. William Langlois, who resides at both parishes.

The shortage is not limited to Grand Haven. There are 65 priests serving the 103 churches of the Diocese of Grand Rapids.

The formal decree by the bishop to begin merging came July 1, less than one month after St. Anthony’s birthday party on June 12.

Celebrating 100 years of history

St. Anthony’s began as a mission church of St. Patrick’s in the early 1900s. In 1910, the priest from St. Patrick’s visited Robinson Township and began celebrating Mass at a school, St. Anthony’s Pastoral Associate Jose Astua said. A family by the last name of Mitchell donated 2 acres of land to build a church in 1911, the year the church recognizes as its beginning — although construction wasn’t complete until 1913, Astua said.

In honor of the centennial, parishioners made posters depicting their personal history within the church. Numerous boards sat proudly on display in St. Anthony’s, holding photographs and memories.

St. Anthony’s parishioner Yvonne Boon can trace her roots back to one of the handful of families who helped start the church. Her great-grandmother, Amelia Vollmer, along with several others, traveled throughout the community asking for donations.

“They secured enough money that they were able to build this church,” said Boon, who has been attending the Robinson Township church for 50 years.

Boon’s great-grandfather, Leopold Vollmer, helped transport bricks over Stearns Bayou to help build the church.

“These horses were used to help haul bricks,” Boon said, pointing to a picture of Leopold and several men posing with the horses. “And they were placed on a scow, which brought them across the bayou.”

Boon centered her poster around a tree to represent her grandfather’s Christmas tree growing and how “we are rooted here in Robinson Township,” she said.

“This was the beginning for a lot of different people,” Boon said. “If they hadn’t done it and said, ‘OK it’s too much work, I don’t want to work those horses that hard,’ this wouldn’t have ever been here. ... All these families wouldn’t have that connection and bond.”

Boon gathered last month with nearly 500 people at St. Anthony’s to celebrate its centennial “with great joy,” she said.

Following a noon Mass, parishioners celebrated with a pig roast and music.

“It was beautiful,” Teasley said. “There were more people here than we expected. The weather was great. The re-communicating with people we haven’t seen for years, that maybe had been here but moved away. (There were) people from St. Pat’s that came out that I renewed some friendship with, too.”

Strazanac said celebrating the successes of the parish helps the process of coping with losing it.

“You can kind of take a lot of delight in seeing the spirit of the people who came out to celebrate that milestone,” Strazanac said.

The merger was downplayed as much as possible so it wouldn’t be a distraction from the celebration, Strazanac said.

“Now we move forward from that point as of July 1, and so we’ve tried really hard to not detract from that celebration with the news of the merger,” he said.

But Boon said she still began to realize the upcoming change in the community while sitting through the 100-year celebration.

“The shock of the moment kind of just hit me,” Boon said. “... I think the historical connection makes it harder. I think the longevity of certain parishioners here makes it more difficult to accept.”

Mourning and accepting a loss

Boon said the dispersal of a community is what makes the merger process hard.

“Change is difficult. That’s what I’m grieving — that loss of community,” she said. “You’ve got to be honest — when you do something for 50 years, whether it’s eat pizza every Friday or what, if you stop doing it, it’s going to be hard to accept.”

Bob Coyne, a St. Anthony’s parishioner and member of the Pastoral Council, said everyone has been coping at their own pace.

“What we’ve noticed is that some parishioners have come to the point where they realize that this is going to happen, and they’re kind of already moving on,” he said. “And other parishioners are still struggling with the idea of the merger.”

Sophie Olechnowicz, 71; and her husband, Bruno, 74, have been attending the church all their lives. The couple, who remain active in the church, grew up going to catechism together.

“It’s been our life,” Sophie said.

After getting married at the church in 1960, they built a house across the street.

“I guess we kind of have looked after the church,” said Sophie, who continues to regularly help clean St. Anthony’s.

Bruno said he is going to miss the community and the family of St. Anthony’s, but he will keep his faith.

“It don’t really matter to me, but I just go into town,” Bruno said. “I’m Catholic — and wherever I go, I’m always going to be Catholic, you know?”

Sophie said she knows nothing is forever.

“It’ll be a big change, but you have to have faith and move on,” she said. “Not that (people will) necessarily like the change — but what do you do?”

Other parishioners have been more resistant to the change. At an informational meeting in mid-July, Gary Rupar expressed his frustration.

“You’re trying to bring us together as one — I thought we were one already,” he said to Strazanac and the crowd. “Why do we need all this to tell us to get together as one? We were already one.”

Many parishioners expressed concern that the church may be sold. Coyne said in an interview that there are no such plans, and the bishop gave permission to keep the building and use it for outreach programs.

Langlois told the crowd at the July meeting that the bishop feels that two new parishes will be needed in the future in Port Sheldon Township and Zeeland.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to close something and open two more,” parishioner Rosella Curry said. “... And we don’t have the priests to handle them. Where’s the priest to handle them going to come from? You don’t have the priest to handle what you’ve got now.”

Strazanac said they are dealing with what’s happening right now.

“A lot of speculation could go on in other ways,” Strazanac said. “What this means to the church is we’re kind of in a time of transition... but we’ve got to deal with what’s happening now and right now. This is where we’re at.”

Transitioning to the future

Strazanac said he hopes that parishioners will start attending St. Patrick’s after the merger, “but we also need to be realistic.”

“They have a number of options to consider and that is entirely up to them,” he said. “But, like we say, we sure hope that they would continue to be a family and approach the change that way.”

The 8 a.m. Mass usually celebrated at St. Anthony’s will transfer to St. Patrick’s after the merger, so people can still attend church at the same time if they wish.

Teasley said she will probably go to St. Patrick’s to celebrate Mass, but is concerned about feeling lost in a bigger parish, which she said happened the one time she visited the Grand Haven church.

“It was crowded, and I sat up in the choir loft there, and I looked around and I cried,” Teasley said. “(I) didn’t know anybody. And it’s true — it’s a big church and you’re not going to know everybody.”

Sophie Olechnowicz said she has heard people say they will be going elsewhere.

“Not that everybody will follow and go to St. Pat’s like they want them to, but I imagine we’ll be going over there,” she said.

Coyne said he was asked to coordinate the formation of a transition team, which will serve as representation for St. Anthony’s parishioners to voice their feelings throughout the process.

“We want to make sure that all the things that we hold sacred and value, and all the activities we do, and celebrations that we partake in all the time are brought over to St. Patrick’s, and those traditions are continued,” he said.

Strazanac said the St. Patrick’s community is looking forward to how St. Anthony’s can “enrich” their parish.

The transition team will remain in place until there is no longer a need and the two communities are completely blended.

“As long as the parish building of St. Anthony’s is still around, then I think there will be a need for a transition team to ensure that the property is secure (and) the property is maintained,” Coyne said.

In the four years Coyne has been attending St. Anthony’s, he said he has come to love the community.

“This is a loss for a lot of the parishioners who have been there their entire lives,” Coyne said. “So we’re hoping that this will help in the healing process and also help everyone move forward.”

Boon said she has faith that God will give the community joy, hope and anything else they may need — whether they like it or not.

“You never know where God’s leading you, so you have to be open,” she said. “At the same time, that hard change is happening (and) you have to be open to what can happen. ... I might just be so embedded, so deeply rooted, that God says, ‘It’s time for you to go, pick you up by your little tree trunk and move you.’”

Teasley said she is also looking to her faith for this time.

“I think we’re going to pray to the Holy Spirit ... that we can accept this and do what’s best,” she said.

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