Preston, Voluntown Catholic churches to be “yoked”

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Region - posted Tue., Feb. 15, 2011
Parishioners exit St. Thomas Church in Voluntown after Sunday Mass. The church will be yoked with St. Catherine of Siena in Preston this spring. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Parishioners exit St. Thomas Church in Voluntown after Sunday Mass. The church will be yoked with St. Catherine of Siena in Preston this spring. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Parishioners at St. Thomas/St. Ann Parish in Voluntown and St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Preston are gearing up to share a pastor and collaborate in ministry when they become formally "yoked" this spring.

The yoking is a step shy of a full merger, leaving both parish communities independent in some respects, but allowing for close cooperation that will enable both churches to continue to function.

That’s something committee members from both parishes are happy about.

“We’re still open for business, which is a good thing,” said St. Thomas Parish council member Paul Dillon. He represented St. Thomas on the cluster advisory committee, which offered recommendations to Bishop Michael Cote of the Norwich Diocese during a year-long process of meetings and deliberations.

“This will not just be a change in Mass times, but a change in the way we think about the parish,” Dillon said.

“No one here is angry about the yoking, as such, because if there is no priest, there’s no parish,” said St. Catherine committee member Jan Clancy.

Catholic parishes across the country have closed in recent years due to changing demographics, dwindling numbers of priests and diminishing finances. These factors prompted the Norwich diocese to consider how best to configure parish resources for the future, said Sister Elissa Rinere, director of the diocese’s office of pastoral planning.

Meetings were held in several deaneries, or regions, of the diocese, and parishes were grouped in clusters to discuss and make recommendations about how best to marshal their joint resources. The recommendations were presented to Bishop Cote, who in October announced his decision to yoke St Catherine and St Thomas. The third parish in the cluster, St Mary in Jewett City, will not be affected.

Perhaps the biggest immediate change will be the probable closure of St. Ann Church in Glasgo, a mission of St Thomas. Currently it hosts only one Mass per week, and Dillon said that one pastor wouldn’t be able to offer a Mass there as well as at the two other churches.

“Initially there will be two Saturday Masses and two Sunday Masses, one at each church,” he said.  It was important to both parishes to have a Saturday vigil Mass, he said.

Father Joseph Thundiyil Chacko, who serves as St. Catherine’s administrator, said he expects to receive a letter from Bishop Cote this April transferring him elsewhere. When he leaves, likely around Easter, one priest will be assigned to cover both parishes. That priest may well be Father Augustine Naduvilekoot, who is the present pastor of St Thomas. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Clancy, a parishioner at St. Catherine since 1974, said she hoped that the two parishes could switch priests for one Sunday before Father Joe is transferred, to let Preston parishioners get acquainted with Father Augustine. “That would be nice,” she said.

Dillon said that the parishes would work toward such joint ventures as adult Bible study groups. At least initially, however, the children’s religious education programs will remain separate and on-site at each parish. “We figure we’d start with the adults because they can drive,” he said.

Both Dillon and Rinere acknowledged that closing St. Ann will be heartbreaking for many parishioners, some of whom fought to keep it open in the 1970s. “But those mission churches were established when travel was extremely difficult,” Rinere said. Current Catholic populations can’t support many small churches in close proximity, she said.

“We don’t want to slight anybody,” she said. “The heritage, the history are all very important. But sometimes things have to change.”


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