BY TOM DALTON
---- — Nearly a dozen Catholic parishes on the North Shore are in the vanguard of a pastoral plan announced yesterday by the Archdiocese of Boston that represents one of the most sweeping reorganizations in its history.
Four parishes in Salem will be grouped into a single collaborative, as will three in Beverly, in the first phase of a five-year effort aimed at making parishes stronger by sharing resources and, in time, increasing church attendance through evangelization.
Rather than closing parishes, as it did in 2004, sparking protests and church occupations, the archdiocese is grouping them into collaboratives that will have one pastor, a pastoral staff team, a parish council and a finance committee.
A total of 12 first-phase collaboratives were announced yesterday by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, including one in Salem (St. James, St. John the Baptist, Immaculate Conception and St. Anne) and another in Beverly (St. Mary, St. Margaret and St. John the Evangelist).
There are also collaboratives in Lynn and Lynnfield.
Officials at the Archdiocese of Boston stressed that this is not a contraction, but a way to grow the church at a time of fewer priests, dwindling Mass attendance and limited financial resources. The ultimate aim is to bring Catholics back to the church and to recruit new members.
“Parish-based evangelization works, and we can train for it,” said the Rev. Paul Soper, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, “but we need strong parishes to do it.”
This plan has been two years in the making and was formally announced in November by O’Malley. Over the next five years, the archdiocese’s 288 parishes will be grouped into 135 collaboratives.
The dozen collaboratives announced yesterday as the “first phase” were chosen because they reflect the diversity of the archdiocese, Soper said. They include a variety of demographics and language groups; some have schools or other special missions.
Some collaboratives are first in line because they indicated an eagerness to get going.
“We went strongly with places that seemed ready,” Soper said yesterday during a briefing at the Pastoral Center in Braintree.
In each collaborative in this first phase, the current pastors will be asked to resign, although they will stay on at least until the collaborative becomes operational in July.
“The collaboratives are being treated as open parishes so anybody can apply” to be pastor, Soper said.
The new pastor, who will be named in March, could be one of the current pastors within the collaborative, or a priest from outside, Soper said.
Even though collaboratives, after July, will become the working church entities in Salem and Beverly, individual parishes and churches will remain.
All of the parishes within the collaborative will continue to host Sunday Masses, although Mass schedules could change. The finances of each parish also will remain intact.
It’s possible that priests within a collaborative will move into one rectory, although that decision will be made locally, as will many future decisions.
“There is going to be an empowerment at the local level that is going to be extraordinary,” said Craig Gibson, a member of the archdiocese’s Pastoral Planning Commission.
Each collaborative will develop a pastoral plan on how best to serve the parish and how to carry out evangelization. It will be submitted to O’Malley next year.
In Salem, a parish task force has been meeting for months to explore and build support for the collaborative concept.
“I think what we’re trying to do is take the best of all the parishes and bring it all together,” Andrea Schwartz, co-chairwoman of the Salem Parishes Task Force, said yesterday. “We’re trying to make everything stronger for the purpose of evangelization.”
The Rev. John Sheridan, pastor of St. James Church in Salem, attended yesterday’s media briefing at the Pastoral Center and strongly endorsed the new plan.
“We’ve been working on this for more than two years,” he said. “I’m just delighted with how well we’ve come together on this throughout the city ...
“I don’t see this as a contraction in any way,” he said. “It’s a new beginning.”
In Beverly, the three churches had already experienced a collaboration when the Rev. David Barnes, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, was given the additional duties of administrator at St. Margaret Church last year.
Barnes said the three Beverly churches also share resources in such areas as religious education and youth ministries.
“We’re a little bit ahead of the curve on some of those things,” he said.
Barnes, who has been at St. Mary’s since 2000 and was named priest of the year at the 2007 Boston Men’s Catholic Conference, said he suspects that he will be switched out of Beverly in the shuffling of pastors.
“My guess is that I would not be staying, but it’s only a pure guess on my part,” he said.
This first group of a dozen collaboratives will be given considerable support from the archdiocese as both they and the archdiocese go through what one official described as a “learning phase.”
“It’s something like a beta test,” Soper said, referring to a common test for computers before a product release.
There will be training for both priests and lay members in many areas, including evangelization, which will focus on bringing back inactive, or so-called “lapsed” Catholics, and recruiting new members, particularly young adults who may not have a church affiliation.
Staff writer Paul Leighton contributed to this story.
Collaboratives in first phase
1. St. Luke and St. Joseph, Belmont
2. St. Mary, St. Margaret and St. John, Beverly
3. St. Mary, St. Theresa and St. Andrew, Billerica
4. St. Mary, Brookline (a one-parish collaborative)
5. St. Mary of the Angels, Roxbury, and St. Thomas and Our Lady of Lourdes, Jamaica Plain
6. St. Mary and Sacred Heart, Lynn
7. Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Maria Goretti, Lynnfield
8. St. Lucy and St. Monica, Methuen
9. Sacred Heart, Middleborough, and Saints Martha and Mary, Lakeville
10. Sacred Heart and Our Lady Help of Christians, Newton
11. St. James, St. John the Baptist, Immaculate Conception and Ste. Anne, Salem
12. St. Jerome and Immaculate Conception, Weymouth