By Susan Mikula Campbell
A merger of St. Bernard R.C. Church in Youngstown and St. Peter R.C. Church in Lewiston seems to be the favored option for the future of the two parishes.
Sister Regina Murphy, director of research and planning for the Diocese of Buffalo, spoke Feb. 28 at the Youngstown church, which recently lost its longtime pastor, Monsignor J. Thomas Moran.
The large crowd of parishioners attending had numerous questions for Murphy as well as Monsignor David LiPuma, current administrator of both parishes, but afterward most agreed a merger could work as long as both sites remain open.
Murphy reported Thursday she had lunch with Bishop Richard J. Malone on Monday and that he was pleased the parish meeting went so well. She noted that, before the bishop makes any decision on a merger, he must officially consult with the diocese's Council of Priests.
At Sunday's Youngstown meeting, Murphy explained the options "when a parish, such as yours, loses a pastor."
Continuing as a single independent parish is nearly impossible, she said, "We simply do not have enough priests."
A parish could have a priest overseeing two or more sites, similar to what is temporarily in play at St. Bernard, with each church retaining separate books, trustees, etc.
"We try to do as few of those as possible, because the demand on the priest is extensive," said Murphy, even to the point of affecting the overworked priest's health.
If two churches were just a few streets away from each other (not the case in this instance), they might agree to merge everything, close one site and meet at the other.
A merger of St. Peter and the smaller St. Bernard parish would ease the burden on LiPuma by having one set of trustees and one parish council, each with representatives from both parishes, and one set of books.
LiPuma already has arranged with priests from Niagara University, Our Lady of Fatima Shrine and the Rev. John Graden of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales to share weekend Mass duties with him at St. Bernard. Weekday Masses are held only at St. Peter. Weddings, funerals and baptisms still can be scheduled at the Youngstown site.
"This church is not closing," LiPuma emphasized.
The first questions asked by parishioners at the meeting were whether St. Bernard Church would lose its name. Both Murphy and LiPuma said this was not necessary. The St. Peter website already lists the name as the St. Peter & St. Bernard Parish Communities.
Also, LiPuma pointed out, in response to a question, that Moran was a "great steward" for St. Bernard and the parish remains financially sound.
Another question was whether, under a merger, funds and property owned by the St. Bernard parish would be siphoned to help pay for the Catholic school at St. Peter.
"That's not the intent of this whatsoever," LiPuma said, adding, "I'm not going to build a high school in Lewiston."
Both he and Murphy indicated the merger agreement could include wording to protect St. Bernard's assets to be sure funds are available for things like repairs and maintenance of its cemetery in the future.
Meetings on future plans will continue. A transition team will be formed to address issues of concern in both communities.
LiPuma said parishioners who have more concerns are welcome to send letters to him or Murphy, or even the bishop, marking "confidential" on the envelope.
As for Moran, he has moved into the diocese's O'Hara Residence for retired priests in Tonawanda. The native of Lockport retired as of Jan. 1 due to health problems after serving almost 31 years as pastor of St. Bernard Church. His 84th birthday is this month.
LiPuma visited Moran a few days before the parish meeting and reported "he looks the best I've seen him in a long time," demonstrating how he can walk without a walker again and telling of a lunch out at his favorite restaurant.
Moran pooh-poohed the suggestion of a Mass and banquet celebrating his retirement, but LiPuma said, "I told him we can't just have him go riding off into the sunset."
The sign-up sheet for volunteers to arrange the event was already full well before the last parishioner left the church after Sunday's meeting.
For more information on the two parishes, the schedule of Easter week services and blessing of Easter baskets, the third annual St. Peter's Fish Fry on March 18 and the second annual St. Peter's 5K Run/1-Mile Walk on May 21, go to http://www.stpeterlewiston.org.