May 18, 2008
Parishes await word on merger proposal
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Philomena Corsi looks at old wedding photos of couples married at St. Anthony’s Church in Cortland that she has documented into an album. Corsi said the church has collected nearly 500 signatures in support of keeping the parish open. The Syracuse Diocese is reviewing a proposal to merge the church with St. Mary’s.
The two Roman Catholic parishes of Cortland are in limbo as members await a decision from the Diocese of Syracuse on a recommendation to merge St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s churches over the next five years.
Brother Ed Falsey, associate director of pastoral planning for the diocese, said a decision would be announced around mid-June.
Parishes across the diocese are being reorganized because the region’s population is dropping and a priest shortage is expected.
A local group that includes the pastors and trustees of St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s parishes and O’Heron Newman Hall on the SUNY Cortland campus drafted the plan to keep open both St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s and submitted it to the diocese March 18.
While the parishes await the announcement, the furor among the two city parishes that has been swirling since a possible merger was announced in February has slowed down a bit.
Petitions have circulated among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and Philomena Corsi, president of St. Anthony’s parish council, said the church has collected nearly 500 signatures in support of keeping St. Anthony’s as a separate entity.
Latecomers to Cortland’s original, mostly Irish congregation at St. Mary’s, Italian immigrants founded St. Anthony’s and its members have retained distinct traditions, such as the annual St. Anthony’s Festival, commemorating St. Anthony of Padua.
Representatives of Cortland’s Catholic churches recommended both churches remain open through 2013, although they would start sharing a single priest and other resources in 2010.
July 1, 2010, is the end of the Rev. Mark Kaminski’s term at St. Anthony’s, at which time the churches would form a single parish with two sites, according to the recommendation.
Corsi said Wednesday the intent of the multi-year time frame is to allow more options to be explored before Kaminski’s term ends, in the hopes that the parishes would not have to be combined.
“We were against the merger from the very, very beginning. We would go along with linkage, we would go along with sharing a priest,” Corsi said. “I’m still against a merger — I want St. Anthony’s to have its own identity, its own building.”
Falsey said the final arrangement is still being discussed, and although he acknowledges the recommendation would allow for a more “gentle” transition, he firmly believes the churches have to be merged and one of the buildings closed sooner or later.
“Either way, I think it’s going to be painful,” Falsey said.
Given the logistics of accommodating the combined congregations within a single building, Falsey said it is likely St. Anthony’s church would close.
“I think that in the end, that’s where they’re going to have to go, so a linkage would be another step to merger,” Falsey said.
Mary Contento of Pleasant Drive attends St. Mary’s, although she used to attend St. Anthony’s before the internal arrangement of pews was reconfigured years ago.
She remembers how difficult it was settling into a new church, and acknowledges any merger would result in similar growing pains. Like many at St. Anthony’s, she is in favor of a “circuit priest” serving several churches, despite the aging population of Catholic priests in the diocese and their dwindling numbers.
Contento also recalled some bad blood when the Italian community was just settling in Cortland.
“I remember years ago, the Italian immigrants weren’t allowed to go to that church, and some of them are still remembering that,” she said.
Some distrust between the congregations has been aired, at least in private, since the possibility of a merger was announced. Falsey said that similar concerns are present whenever any project like this is undertaken, especially concerning money. “Those are actually normal kinds of things that go on in the background … There’s always money issues … Both parishes are in the black and both parishes are doing rather well,” Falsey said. “And some of the past hurts, which, as good Christians, we should be moving away from and forgiving each other for.”
Corsi said that nothing is written in stone until the diocese comes back with its decision.
“We have resigned ourselves to nothing,” Corsi said.
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