October 21, 2016
Just shortly after arriving in July of 2014 as pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Yonkers, NY, Father Jose Ortega and area parishioners received word that neighboring St. Denis Church, a canonically distinct parish, would be merged and it’s building closed within a year’s time. It’s a familiar story for many other pastors across the nation.
In the case of St. Peter’s and St. Denis in Yonkers, the two parishes shared a lot in terms of culture and practice of the faith—both diverse with a large Spanish speaking population—but this did not necessarily make the transition easier.
Father Ortega admits facing trouble working with the staff of St. Denis during the closure process, which proved to be the most difficult aspect of the whole ordeal. Reflecting back on this process, Father Ortega reinforced the importance of committing to work together and share information across parish staffs and volunteer networks. Leadership should make prayer a first priority. Nothing helpful comes of assigning blame, which can be tempting and particularly damaging in such a vulnerable period.
A hopeful and symbolic sign of unity, however, came during the 2015 Holy Week procession involving both congregations, who walked together from St. Denis Church to St. Peter’s Church only a few blocks away. In one sense, the event communicated the reality of closure. But more than that, the message, Father Ortega suggested, was that the congregations walk together. In the face of the bare fact that one church’s doors are closed, that parish does not belong to either assembly alone. There was a path forward for both churches.
St. Denis Church celebrated its last Mass on August 1, 2015. Two weeks later, the newly combined St.Peter-St.Denis Parish undertook street missions, including visiting door-to-door any registered families. The parish saw this as a convenient opportunity to alert anyone to the recent change and invite them back if they have not attended for some time, achieving both a practical and evangelistic end.
Today, just over a year later, many still feel the loss, but ministries have nonetheless survived and even thrived. Before merging, both parishes featured some of the same spiritual or devotional communities that were joined into one. Additionally, St. Peter-St. Denis Parish has focused on other new ministries, and today engages nearly 600 members in small groups.
Every merger will present unpredictable challenges and different measures of success. Father Ortega points to looking for sources of unity between what already exists, and merging those with opportunities to do something completely new that may allow the communities to create something together.
By Evan Ponton