On Sept. 22 some 500 parishioners of four west suburban Catholic parishes – St. Barbara, St. Louise de Marillac, Divine Providence and Divine Infant — gathered at Divine Providence Church in Westchester to hear Cardinal Blaise Cupich’s decision regarding their futures.
The news was bittersweet.
First, the news that everyone was expecting: None of the parishes would continue to exist independently as they had in the past – in the case of St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield, for the past 102 years.
“The whole structure is being changed,” said the Rev. Denis Condon, pastor of St. Louise de Marillac Church in LaGrange Park since 2010. “We’re setting off into uncharted waters in a certain sense.”
In his letter to parishioners in the Sept. 23 parish bulletin, Condon acknowledged the loss of the autonomy, comparing it to a sort of death that would lead to a renewal.
“It’s our time to embrace the resurrection here and now and look forward to the life that is to come,” Condon wrote. “We will have a new shape and form and even a new name, but we will still be the good people of God that we are now.”
Parishioners had been bracing themselves for that reality since March, when all four parishes began their journey through the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church initiative, which will realign every parish in the archdiocese in response to dwindling congregations, school enrollment and clergy.
The final decision by the cardinal may have softened the blow somewhat. Instead of rolling all four churches into one regional parish, the cardinal decreed that St. Barbara and St. Louise would be consolidated to form one new parish, while Divine Providence and Divine Infant, both in Westchester, would consolidate to form a second new parish.
The parishes will become official – with new names and new pastors for each – on July 1, 2019. All four church buildings will continue to be used as worship sites.
Then there was some unexpected news: St. Louise de Marillac School will not be closing after this school year. Instead, it will continue to function as the parish school for the new combined St. Louise/St. Barbara parish – something that none of the renewal scenarios had contemplated.
Divine Providence School will be the school for the combined Westchester parish, and Divine Infant School will close at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
According to Condon, the decision to keep St. Louise de Marillac School open was a last-minute decision by the cardinal. Despite the fact that the Pre-K-8 school’s enrollment is just 148, the school is not subsidized by the archdiocese and is financially viable, which may have played a role.
Rev. Jason Malave, who is the cardinal’s liaison to the Renew My Church initiative said there was “great passion around wanting to give [St. Louise School] a few more years” to see if it can boost its efforts to advertise and increase enrollment.
“They know they have their work cut out for them,” Malave said.
For the next several months, said Malave, life in each parish will continue with few outward differences, with the same Mass schedules, same clergy presiding, same parish ministries.
Condon said cooperation between St. Louise and St. Barbara has already started, with the two parishes collaborating on Advent and Lenten services. Rev. Edgar Rodriguez, who has been pastor of St. Barbara Church in Brookfield since 2016, recently presided over a school Mass at St. Louise, said Condon.
“That will continue, and we’ll find more things to share to see ourselves as one parish instead of two,” Condon said.
Rodriguez did not respond to a call seeking comment for this story. But his letter to parishioners in the Sept. 30 St. Barbara Church bulletin addressed both the feeling of loss and opportunity for renewal the process presents.
“The acceptance of loss is very hard but unity, although good for the most part, does not come without its share of challenges,” Rodriguez wrote. “It reminds us that we are different. However, although different, we live in the same world, we face the same basic challenges. … The reality is that we are more similar than we are different and it is in that space of sameness that we can begin to understand each other and work together for a better future for St. Barbara and St. Louise de Marillac.”
Behind the scenes, the archdiocese will begin the process of finding a new pastor for the two new parishes. The process will be open to any priest wishing to apply for the job.
Condon confirmed he won’t seek to be pastor of the new parish. He has sent a letter to Cupich asking to be permitted to retire on June 30, 2019, St. Louise de Marillac’s final day as an autonomous parish.
Malave said the archdiocese will select pastors for the new parishes in March 2019 and they will begin their jobs on July 1, 2019.