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Smooth, collaborative three-parish merger in Cleveland credited to work of the Holy Spirit

CLEVELAND, Ohio (Catholic Universe Bulletin) - Although the plan has not yet been formally approved, three predominantly African American parishes are looking forward to the New Year when they become one community.

BIRTH OF A PARISH - The parishes of St. Catherine, St. Henry and St. Timothy have been having a joint Mass monthly since 2006. A Mass on August 19 found Mattie Talmadge, Juanita Larkin, Jesse Erwin, Deacon Shelby Friend, Sophie Redd and St. Joseph Sister Kathleen McCafferty coming together. (George Shuba)

BIRTH OF A PARISH - The parishes of St. Catherine, St. Henry and St. Timothy have been having a joint Mass monthly since 2006. A Mass on August 19 found Mattie Talmadge, Juanita Larkin, Jesse Erwin, Deacon Shelby Friend, Sophie Redd and St. Joseph Sister Kathleen McCafferty coming together. (George Shuba)


St. Catherine, St. Henry and St. Timothy parishes are seeking to merge and become the new Holy Spirit Parish. The new parish would be located at the current St. Timothy Church on East 131st Street near the Cleveland-Garfield Heights border.

The merger process has taken 29 months and under canon law the plan to come together on January 6 still must be heard by the Presbyteral Council before Bishop Richard G. Lennon gives his final approval.

The council will discuss the plan at its November 30 meetiDeacon Shelby Friend of St. Henry said the effort has focused on maintaining a strong, vibrant Catholic presence in southeast Cleveland rather than going it alone amidst the pressures of a changing population, the declining number of priests and financial burdens.

Membership totals about 475 households which is almost equally divided among the three parishes. Membership includes African Americans, whites, Hispanics, Asians, island blacks and bi-racial people.

“We’ve tried to bring together the concept of hope,” Deacon Friend said. “If we can focus on what we gain in coming together as a community as opposed to what we might lose, that’s what made us persevere in our discernment process and in our prayer.”

Representatives of the steering committee which has met since June 2005 credit the Holy Spirit for the birth of the new parish. They said they knew the Holy Spirit was at work when the new parish’s proposed name was the most popular in voting at all three parishes over the summer.

“(The vote) just blew our minds,” Deacon Friend said.

The overall effort has focused on the need for collaboration and the importance of maintaining a vibrant Catholic presence in southeast Cleveland, explained Ron James of St. Catherine Parish.

“I think it’s very important we do have this Catholic African American presence in the southeast side of the city,” he said. “When you look at the needs of the community, the poverty, the hunger, the children being raised in single parent homes, the desperation people feel. We need the sense of community we bring.”

Archbishop Lyke School, with campuses at St. Timothy and St. Henry, will be unaffected by the merger, said Ursuline Sister Brigetta Waldron, elementary principal at the St. Henry site.

The school has served as a stabilizing factor in the southeast Cleveland community by giving parents an alternative to public schools. The school’s enrollment is largely non-Catholic.

“The support the school can give to the families in the area is far reaching and very important,” Sister Waldron said.

Work of the Holy Spirit

Deacon Friend said the voting outcome on the new parish’s name was a sign that what the three parishes were doing the right thing.

“I think it’s appropriate that it was the Holy Spirit who brought us together.” Deacon Friend said. “I think it’s appropriate that it was the Holy Spirit who gave us the energy to sustain ourselves. ... That’s what’s going to keep us going.”

“When we first started this we were all afraid,” James added. “But as we got into the process through prayer, through discernment, through getting to know each other, it began to come together.

“We’re still a little afraid, but we’re still committed to it. We’re hopeful. We’re guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Bishop Lennon complimented the parishes for their foresight in initiating the merger process.

“They have been working together tremendously,” he said. “They’ve done so with a true to desire to remain vibrant as a community and realized their future would be one of coming together.

“People realized what is truly important is to live Catholic life in a vibrant way.”

Long process

The idea of coming together originated in 2004 when the three parish communities, along with St. Cecilia and Epiphany parishes, began to explore opportunities to collaborate in ministry to the Catholic African American community. The initial step followed a successful revival sponsored by the parishes.

Citing common interests and financial realities in summer 2005, St. Catherine, St. Henry and Epiphany agreed to form a steering committee to consider the possibility of merging. At the time, St. Timothy decided simply to observe the process. St. Cecilia withdrew from the process.

A few months later, Epiphany raised some reservations about merging and also withdrew. The steering committee continued to meet every two weeks. The three remaining parishes planned joint reconciliation services, liturgies and socials that allowed parishioners to get to know each other.

Early in 2006, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla visited the communities and formally opened the merger process. Soon thereafter, St. Timothy formally committed to the merger. The parishes convened town hall style meetings to hear updates on what had been discussed by the steering committee and to give parishioners the chance to offer ideas on how to proceed. The communities also began worshiping together monthly.

“First and foremost, we had to get to know each other,” James said. “It’s a lot easier to love people when you know them.”

The same held true for the children. A two-week summer camp and Christmas party in 2006 and three activity days this summer gave youngsters the chance to mingle, play and talk.

For 16 months, subcommittees met and addressed issues such as communication, relationship building, worship, site feasibility, financial concerns, religious education, youth ministry and grant writing. They reported on their progress at steering committee meetings.

Finally this fall, steering committee members presented a proposal to Bishop Lennon. Among their recommendations:

• The site for St. Timothy was deemed the best suited for the new parish.

• The name Holy Spirit was presented as the one selected through a vote by parishioners. Other parish names considered were St. Catherine Drexel and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.

• Each parish would have closing liturgies on December 30.

• The opening liturgy for the New Holy Spirit parish would be January 6.

In the meantime, Father Donald Oleksiak will meet with parishioners to discuss the qualities and skills they would like to see in a new pastor during a town hall meeting at 7:00 p.m, November 19 at St. Timothy Church.

Much work remains in the months ahead. Decisions will have to be made on which sacred vessels, statues, artwork and mementoes to bring to East 131st Street. Parish finances will have to be reconciled. James said the new parish council also will prepare a mission statement that will guide Holy Spirit’s ministerial work.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Universe Bulletin (www.catholicuniversebulletin.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.

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