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Merrillville parish leadership focuses on future in developing proposals

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BY ERIN CISZCZON

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

        MERRILLVILLE - “A sign of the times” was a phrase strongly associated with the Catholic Church in the era of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. It was taken to mean that the church should listen to, and learn from, the world around it.

Diocese of Gary priests, deacons and parish leaders made that phrase a key theme as reevaluated the structure of the local church within the town of Merrillville earlier this year.

        In February, Bishop Robert J. McClory asked Father Kevin Huber, diocesan chancellor and pastor of two parishes in Michigan City, to facilitate a three-step process, with some guidance from the Catholic Leadership Institute, to examine the best way for the Catholic Church to remain viable and continue evangelizing in Merrillville. This process involved taking a close look at the five parishes within the town’s borders: St. Andrew the Apostle, St. Joan of Arc, Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Stephen, Martyr and Our Lady of Consolation.

        “It was to re-envision the Catholic presence in Merrillville for future generations. So, it wasn’t just about this generation but the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who are in those parishes now,” said Father Huber.

        Priests and administrators from each of the parishes chose three key leaders to be part of a working group participating in in-depth conversations regarding the future of the Merrillville parishes. There were also four deacons – Steven Zubel, Robert Litavecz, Thomas Gryzbek and Malcolm Lunsford – along with Father Michael Maginot, pastor of St. Stephen, Martyr, and Father Peter Muha, pastor of Our Lady of Consolation, invited to the meetings.

        The first step for the group was to gain a better understanding of the landscape of Merrillville. To do this they looked at various aspects of the town, examining the demographics, sacramental life, population growth, financial stability and parish life of each parish. Father Huber said they had “lots and lots” of data to review in part thanks to Deacon Dan Lowery who presented detailed information.

        Deacon Lowery, tasked with gathering information about the entire diocese over the last several years, took data that pertained to the Merrillville parishes and compared it to the diocese as a whole and even to the nation. Like many parishes, he said, the Merrillville parishes are declining in membership and in access to the sacraments.

        “And this is a challenge – this is the evangelical challenge of our age but it’s no less true for the other parishes than it is for Merrillville,” said Deacon Lowery. “The question then becomes, how do we structure or organize the Church in our communities and in the diocese in such a way that we can effectively evangelize the world around us?”

        Deacon Lowery said the fact that Merrillville is home to five parishes within its borders reflects the thinking of Bishop Andrew Grutka, the first bishop of the Diocese of Gary, that churches should be neighborhood-based.

        “But we are in a different time and place now,” noted Deacon Lowery. “So, we have to ask ourselves to read the signs of the times.”

        Step two for the group became generating proposals or models for ministry that could be put into action within Merrillville. There were five guiding criteria to generate those models: financial viability, pastoral and sacramental care, stewardship and evangelization, hopes and dreams of people of Merrillville, and ministry opportunity. In the end, four different models were created and shared with the key leaders for their consideration.

        “We asked for suggestions. We asked for revisions. We asked for input,” explained Father Huber.

        The third and final step was to create recommendations from those models to propose to Bishop McClory. Of the four models, two were deemed the best to meet the needs of the Merrillville community and were outlined in greater detail and given to the bishop for his prayerful consideration and discernment on June 1. Once he has had time to reflect on the proposals, Bishop McClory is expected to announce his decision and plans will be made to carry out the decision.

        “There was complete transparency throughout this entire process,” said Father Huber. “There were no end games. From the moment we started meeting until the time we finished, there was absolutely no preconceived notion on what the end game would look like.”

        Five meetings were held in April and May with the key leaders, and three additional meetings open to all Merrillville parishioners took place at Our Lady of Consolation.

        In 2018, Sacred Heart in Michigan City closed its doors and Father Huber recalled what a difficult decision that was to make even though there were only 28 people on the parish registry at the time. He said that experience taught him to remain compassionate and really listen to others. He acknowledged that people feel connected to a particular parish because it is where they were baptized, where they were married, or even where their parents were married.

        “We belong to a universal Church and not to a particular parish, and we need to see ourselves as part of a bigger picture,” he said. “We are all on the same team and ultimately we all want to share The Good News, proclaim the Kingdom of God and get to heaven. Whatever it takes to do that is what we really need to be focused on.”

        Being a parishioner of St. Joan of Arc, diocesan chief of staff Michael Wick had a vested interest in the process and offered insights from both a diocesan and parishioner perspective.

        It was clear to all the key leaders, he said, that the status of the Merrillville parishes was an issue that needed to be addressed. Urgency resulted with the sudden passing of Father James Meade, who served as pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Joan of Arc and St. Andrew at the time of his death in October 2020.

        “It really coincided in a way that took on his memory and his passion to try and resolve the situation with something that was going to be positive and sustainable,” Wick said.

        While each parish is unique, Wick said he didn’t learn anything that prevents the Merrillville parishes being brought together into a new entity.

        “Everything could be brought together to build a strong Catholic presence that would be able to share the fruits of those parishes and make it a strong, viable presence,” Wick said.

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