By SHEILA OJENDYK
LAURENS — People from six parishes in the southwest corner of the Piedmont Deanery recently filled the meeting room of Holy Spirit Mission to address the scarcity of priests in their cluster. Sister Joan Kobe, DW, pastoral administrator of Good Shepherd Mission in McCormick, facilitated the Cluster IV meeting on Jan 10. Cluster IV comprises Good Shepherd Mission, Holy Spirit Mission, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Greenwood, Sacred Heart Parish in Abbeville, St. Boniface Parish in Joanna and St. Mark Parish in Newberry. These six faith communities have two assigned priests within their geographic boundaries.
Bishop David B. Thompson submitted a three-part agenda for the meeting: first, address how to serve Catholics in the cluster using the existing churches and personnel; second, consider modifying Mass schedules to accommodate parishes without assigned priests; and third, consider megachurches. The bishop specified that all parishes must remain intact with no closures.
Father Hayden Vavarek, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, says five Masses each weekend, including one in Spanish. Father James Crowley, OMI, serves as administrator at St. Mark and as sacramental priest to St. Boniface and Holy Spirit and also says five Masses each weekend.
Neither Good Shepherd Mission nor Sacred Heart Parish has had an assigned sacramental priest since October of 1996. Visiting priests are brought in from other parts of the state — and sometimes from out of state — with the two parishes paying expenses. When a visiting priest does come, he must say two Masses in Abbeville, travel to McCormick for a third Mass and perform weddings and baptisms, all of which are dovetailed into a short weekend. When a priest is not available, Sister Kobe leads a Liturgy of the Word with distribution of (previously consecrated) Holy Communion.
Discussion at the meeting was at times brisk. A man inquired about recruiting priests from outside the diocese. Another man emphasized that dealing with the shortage of priests should be addressed at management level, not at a lower level. Suggestions included circuit-riding priests as well as realignment of clusters to share resources with Edgefield and North Augusta. A woman stated that “…people will find their spiritual life somewhere else…” if they cannot attend Mass in their own communities. Another woman requested one Mass in Spanish. A parishioner from Sacred Heart requested that all faith communities in the cluster print each other’s Mass schedules in their Sunday bulletins to allow parishioners the option of going elsewhere for Mass. A woman voiced her concern that children will be lost to the faith, and a man urged active support for more vocations. Several people stressed the need for a formal, written plan.
Sister Kobe urged attendees to “…think of Sunday as a whole day…” and consider Sunday afternoon or early evening Masses as options. Father Vavarek volunteered to take turns saying Mass once or twice a month at Good Shepherd and Sacred Heart instead of saying all five Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes.
None of the attendees wanted to consider megachurches as an option because of loss of community identity as well as distance to travel.
All attendees agreed that the priest shortage is an immediate, national problem needing urgent action. Sister Kobe assigned each parish to designate two representatives to study all options and prepare a written plan to submit first to the cluster and then to Bishop Thompson. Cluster IV will meet next at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7, at Sacred Heart.