, Salem, MA

January 12, 2013

For Catholic priests, a time of uncertainty


---- — With a busy schedule of weekend Masses on the horizon, the Rev. John Sheridan took time yesterday morning to write a letter of resignation to the Archdiocese of Boston.

“I’m writing it as we speak,” the pastor of St. James Church in Salem told a caller.

He is not alone.

Pastors at the 28 churches which the archdiocese named on Thursday to be in the first phase of a major parish reorganization are required to submit letters of resignation by Monday.

Locally, the edict impacts four parishes in Salem — Immaculate Conception, St. James, St. John the Baptist and St. Anne — and three in Beverly — St. Mary Star of the Sea, St. John the Evangelist and St. Margaret.

The resignations are required because the 12 collaboratives, or clusters of churches, formed from the 28 parishes are now considered “open parishes,” according to the Rev. Paul Soper, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese.

Any pastor submitting a letter of resignation can apply to be pastor of the new collaborative, as can priests from outside. The new pastors will be named in March.

In the meantime, the local pastors will continue to serve at their respective churches at least until June, when transfers are expected to take place. Even if they’re not named to head the new collaboratives, it’s possible some priests could remain within the collaborative, which will have a pastoral team of priests and staff, a parish council and a finance committee.

But, for now, with so many unknowns, it is a time of uncertainty for priests in this first phase of a major reorganization. Over the next five years, priests in all 288 parishes in the archdiocese will go through the same experience.

“Some people are very anxious about it,” said the Rev. Timothy Murphy, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Salem.

Murphy’s case is different. He had to submit a letter of resignation last August when he turned 75, technically the mandatory retirement age for priests, although many continue in active roles past that milestone.

Three of the Salem parishes have older pastors who have been there for years. In addition to Murphy, who is starting his 18th year at Immaculate Conception, the Rev. George Dufour, 73, has been a fixture at St. Anne’s, and the Rev. Stanley Parfienczyk, 67, is the longtime pastor of St. John the Baptist.

At a citywide meeting of Salem Catholics a few weeks ago, concern about this transition appeared greatest at St. John’s, a Polish parish. In an effort to allay fears, the archdiocese has pledged, no matter who is chosen pastor for the collaborative, to continue Masses in Polish.

For many priests, the reorganization will mean leaving assignments they have enjoyed, assignments where they have made a difference.

“I love it here,” said the Rev. David Barnes, 41, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea and administrator of St. Margaret’s, both in Beverly. “It’s been a great assignment....

“One of my great blessings here at St. Mary’s is that we have had a lot of guys go to seminary in the past few years ... When something is working, it’s hard to want to change it.”

Barnes said he expects to apply to be pastor of the new Beverly collaborative but, like every other priest, doesn’t know what his fate will be.

“My main concern obviously is for the parishes here, that they are well taken care of,” he said. “This has been such a good fit for me that I hope, if I am not picked, that I have as much good fortune in my next assignment.”

Although change is often difficult, it is part of the life of a priest, especially at time of a severe clergy shortage. Many have already served in multiple parishes and roles.

“For most priests, there’s this understanding that, first, we’re called to be a priest, then we’re called to be a priest in various assignments and situations, so there’s not this sense of pain or loss,” said Sheridan, 48, the Salem pastor.

“We don’t know what’s ahead but, again, we understood that when we were ordained — that we’re instruments of our Lord. And because of that, we may be asked to go to places and serve in different ways that we may have never expected. So we need to be open to what the Lord has in mind for us.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at