by LISA CAPOBIANCO
St. Ann and St. Anthony parishes may have merged, but both church buildings will remain open for masses.
Since the Archdiocese announced the merge as part of its reorganization plan in May, the transition into the newly-formed parish, St. Francis de Sales, has continued for Father Al Fontana and parishioners of St. Anthony and St. Ann.
“Everyone has been positive. This is going very well,” said Fontana, who is the reassigned pastor of the new parish. “We’re not divided by buildings. We’re united by our faith.”
Last weekend, the parish kicked off its new mass schedule. While the Saturday 4 p.m. vigil has continued at St. Anthony’s, it has not at St. Ann’s. Sunday masses at St. Ann’s will take place at 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and 11 a.m. at St. Anthony’s. During the week, 8 a.m. masses will take place at St. Anthony on Mondays and Tuesdays and on Wednesdays and Fridays at St. Ann.
In addition, last weekend marked the first baptism for the newly-formed parish.
“This is significant for a milestone,” said Fontana. “It’s very exciting.”
St. Francis de Sales is one of 59 newly-merged parishes that resulted from the pastoral plan, which began two years ago. As of last Thursday (June 29), 68 of the 212 parishes overseen by the Archdiocese remained as they were, while 26 closed. The remaining 144 parishes merged.
Factors like shifts in demographics, financial sustainability, and a decline in Sunday Mass attendance.
While the number of active priests has decreased by 65 percent, as reported by the Archdiocese, so has the number of people attending Mass. In the last 50 years, Sunday mass attendance has declined by nearly 70 percent, according to the Archdiocese.
A member of the Pastoral Council for the Archdiocese, Lodovico was baptized and married at St. Anthony Church. He also attended St. Anthony Elementary School and served as an altar boy from third through seventh grade—a time he recalled when his parish had four to five priests.
Lodovico said the merge did not come as a shock, but rather a reality of how these parishes would survive moving forward.
“It was something that had to be done,” said Lodovico, who is optimistic that the merge will make the community stronger. “The alternative was: we do this, or something has to close.”
“It’s human nature to resist change, but in reality, it’s necessary for spiritual growth,” said Fontana.
For St. Ann parishioners, the reality of this change was apparent since the merge.
Like Lodovico, lifelong Bristol resident and practicing attorney Andre Dorval has seen changes in the church from the time he was baptized at St. Ann. Growing up, Dorval recalled arriving to church 20 minutes early with his mother to make sure they got a seat.
Although parishioners have expressed concern about what the future, Dorval said they seem to realize the facts of today’s challenges for the Catholic Church.
“There’s sorrow, in the sense that people remember how things were in the past, but I think people are willing to accept that this is a necessity moving forward,” said Dorval, who serves on the Pastoral Council.
Although the name of their newly-formed parish may take some time for the community to recognize, the faces parishioners now see at Mass may not. Whether they grew up together in the West End or volunteered together, many parishioners of St. Anthony and St. Ann have known each other for years.
“We’ve been intermixing for years,” said Lodovico, adding how he felt happy to see no church closings in Bristol. “When someone couldn’t make a certain mass at St. Anthony’s, they went to St. Ann’s, especially during the week.”
“Going back, although the parishes were ethnic in nature, the vast majority of individuals who attended those churches lived in the West End,” added Dorval.
Since 1908, St. Ann Church has served generations of French-Canadian families who settled in Bristol. Just 12 years after that, St. Anthony Church began serving generations of Italian families who came to the city.
“It’s hard because people have been coming to churches all their lives, and they built their milestones around them. The world around us changes, and eventually, the churches are going to face that change as well,” said Fontana. “That can be tough—especially for our senior members, who have been coming here all their lives. But the positive thing is both campuses are here.”
While some parishes have shown resistance to the reorganization plan, said Deacon Ernie Scrivani of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Pastoral Planning, the majority of them have expressed a positive response.
“When you make the kinds of changes we’ve made, there’s likely to be some people who would rather have things the way they have always been,” said Scrivani, noting how everyone reacts to change differently. “But we’re confident that going forward, the new business as usual will take over and everyone will settle in.”
In helping the newly-formed parishes with their transition, the Archdiocese has provided a 200-page manual to guide them in policies and procedures.
“We’re trying to give them as many resources as possible,” said Scrivani.
Fontana said the Archdiocese has guided the new parish “every step of the way,” such as offering assistance from people who work in buildings and grounds, human resources and finance. A finance manager of the Archdiocese recently visited the church buildings of both St. Anthony and St. Ann.
“He delineated very clearly all the things we needed to do to complete the merger,” said Fontana.
As time goes on, more structural changes will emerge for St. Francis de Sales, such as the creation of a new parish council and finance council. Before the merge even happened, both Bristol parishes combined their religious education program.
“Those things just happen as we go,” said Fontana. “We’re getting strength through unit, so when you do that, you have more resources to draw from.”
Besides bringing their resources together, both churches also will bring parishioners together through meet-and-greets and other activities, as the transition continues.
“It’s important we get to know each other, especially for me as pastor,” said Fontana, adding how grateful he feels to serve as the new parish’s pastor. “Our aim is to bring these communities together.”
Looking ahead, Dorval said he is optimistic that the merge will bring a successful future for the newly-formed parish.
“You’re going to have more people at Masses, and hopefully it will help energize the parishes as we move forward,” said Dorval.
The Archdiocese also expressed confidence in the pastoral plan. Scrivani said he has already witnessed a “new energy” just at his parish alone in North Haven.
“There are fewer masses, and more people attending, so the liturgies are just more dynamic—there are more people singing, there people meeting other people from other parishes,” said Scrivani.
For more information about the pastoral plan, visit www.stewardsfortomorrow.org/.