First cluster liturgy may be a prelude to the future

RICHBURG – Pentecost is a major celebration for Catholics in Chester and Lancaster counties every year, but the 1997 liturgy was special even so. More than 400 parishioners of St. Michael in Great Falls, St. Joseph in Chester and St. Catherine in Lancaster met together to worship as a cluster.

Parish representatives from clusters have been meeting across the diocese, but last Sunday was the first cluster liturgy since the concept was formed as a result of recommendations from the Synod of Charleston. Clusters are groups of parishes and other faith communities in a deanery that are organized to share resources and ideas and to otherwise assist one another; clusters are small enough to be useful as an administrative tool.

The Trinity Cluster of St. Michael, St. Joseph and St. Catherine is actually a mini-cluster. They all share the same sacramental priest, so the Pentecost Mass and the reception following were an opportunity to test the waters.

“We are preparing for interesting times,” Father Tom Morrison told the congregation. “Consider this: my colleagues are dwindling. We have fewer priests. So, how can we continue to practice our faith and maintain our identities? This is an attempt to see how this works.”

The pastor admitted that the parish councils of the three parishes expressed concerns about the impact of the clustering concept on their individual churches, but most participants in the cluster liturgy were optimistic.

“It’s inevitable that we will see a community church in five to 10 years,” said Henry Young of St. Joseph. “I think this is a prelude in that direction.”

Young and Jack Mullaney of St. Catherine both thought that the location of the cluster Mass — in Richburg, 13 miles from Lancaster, 16 from Chester and 10 from Great Falls — would be a likely spot for a central church in the future. Parish councils have not officially discussed a large, community church, and Father Morrison said that none of the parishes was prepared financially to consider building now, but many members feel that it may be the best way to address the priest shortage and growing parish populations.

The mini-cluster can be viewed as the Diocese of Charleston in microcosm.”St. Catherine’s has gotten too small,” Mullaney said. “We’re at 150 families, or so, and growing. Someday we’ll need a new church.”

Historic St. Joseph Church (143 years old) is also packed on weekends. Father Morrison is the only priest available now; Deacon Jon Dwyer is the pastoral administrator of the parishes. Father Morrison said that one central church for all three parishes to worship in regularly is “a possibility.”

The cluster concept gives members of very small parishes, like St. Michael, hope for preserving their identities and what Young called their “character and charm.” David McKeown of St. Michael, so small that the entire congregation makes up the parish council, sees the parish keeping its hometown church for weddings and funerals while still being able to use the service of a priest at regular Masses. He also sees other advantages to clustering.

“They have more gifts than us, so we might benefit by going in on some things together. We all view this as an opportunity to help each other out,” McKeown said.John Hrenchir and Patrick Scott of St. Catherine saw younger members of all three parishes benefiting from clustering.

“There is a great need, especially in youth ministries. There is so much more we could do together,” Hrenchir said.

Scott said the inevitability of combining parish resources was beginning to overcome apprehension of losing local parish identities: “There is some fear we might get lost in a big cluster, but it gives us some lobbying power. And, because of the declining number of priests and increasing numbers of Catholics — and no married priests possible — we may have to do something central.” Following the Mass, members of each parish spoke briefly about their parish.