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"For so long, it was like going back to the scene of a death," said Weckman, who attended the Catholic church in New Prague for almost 23 years before it closed last year. "There's virtually nothing left, other than the pews. All the religious articles are gone."
This Sunday marks the first Easter for many Catholics whose parishes were forced to merge in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese's major reorganization. While painful aftershocks continue, parishioners like Weckman are moving past their grief to embrace the new life of their merged parishes.
"It's just God setting us on a new path," Weckman said. "You can't change it. So make the best of it. Because wonderful things can come from it."
Thousands of area Catholics are coping with the largest reorganization in the archdiocese's 160-year history, a downsizing forced by tighter budgets, shifting demographics and a projected shortage of priests. In dense urban neighborhoods and sparse outlying areas, 21 parishes are merging into 14 "receiving" parishes; there will be 191 parishes when it's all done.
Weckman's former church is part of the biggest piece of the reorganization. St. Benedict's, along with nearby parishes St. John the Evangelist in Union Hill, St. Joseph's in Lexington and St. Scholastica's in Heidelberg, all merged into St. Wenceslaus' in New Prague, 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis. St. John and St. Scholastica remain open. St. Joseph was sold for $1 and is now a museum. St. Benedict's sits for sale on a gravel road next to a pig farm.
Hard to say goodbye
At St. Benedict's, Weckman served on the finance council, helped manage the church and sang in the choir. Her three children were confirmed there.
When parishioners got word that the church would close, it wasn't a big surprise. Their parish priest had been preparing them for such a possibility. Upkeep on the crumbling 1880s brick church, which does not have a restroom or handicapped access, was a drain on finances. Older parishioners were dying and young families were not replacing them. Weckman's own children had moved on and did not attend the church. The congregation had dwindled to about 110 members.
Still, the closure hit her hard as she helped with the spiritually wrenching job of clearing out the church -- removing the altar, crucifixes, statues and other treasured objects.
"I was extremely sad. It was such an empty hole," Weckman said.
Feelings of loss mounted as she watched former St. Benedict's parishioners move to churches outside the newly merged parish.
"We had this dispersal of our [church] family. That still is hard," she said.
The three remaining churches serve about 4,500 parishioners. Three masses are said at St. Wenceslaus', and another three at St. John and St. Scholastica.
Finding a common bond
Weckman decided to try St. Scholastica because of its small size. At a breakfast welcoming the newcomers, Weckman "hit it off with" the church's choir director. She was invited to join the group, and other St. Benedict's parishioners have joined, too.
"It's kind of nice, just building that community again," Weckman said. "For us, it's a way to feel that we belong."
St. Benedict's parishioners have also felt welcomed in other ways. One of St. Benedict's prized possessions, oil paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross, now hang in St. John's. St. Benedict's statue of their patron saint was moved to St. Scholastica's.
St. Benedict's children help serve mass at St. John's and St. Scholastica's, and the former church's eucharistic ministers are involved.
"Everybody is kind of finding their niche and merging in," she said. "We've just brought our talents to the other churches.
"It is very much like Easter, because we experienced the death, the sadness that went along when Christ passed away, when our church died. But then we started moving forward and taking pieces of ourselves and our identity to other churches. We met these wonderful people at St. Scholastica's and St. John's, too. I just thought, the rebirth is the welcoming."
'Take the best from the past'
People in the smaller parishes had worried about losing their unique "country church" identities by merging with the larger St. Wenceslaus', said the Rev. Kevin Clinton, pastor of the merged parish. He presides at St. Wenceslaus' while the associate pastor, the Rev. Dave Barrett, celebrates masses at St. Scholastica's and St. John's.
Keeping St. Scholastica's and St. John's open means parishioners can still get the intimate feeling they want at church, Clinton said.
"You need to help people take the best from the past ... and create something new," he said.
Carol Weiers, a trustee of the newly merged parish and a member of St. John's for nearly 30 years, says St. John's has worked to help people through the transition.
At first, when the parish bulletin was changed to include information from all churches in the new merger, parishioners would try to pull out pages that pertained to their own church sites. Now the bulletin is bound so parishioners must take it intact.
"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go,' Weiers said. "The biggest thing is how do you mold ... these into one parish? How do you get them to think as one? We're so used to being on our own."
The priests are encouraged by signs that the parishes are beginning to come together.
One of the most recent examples: Each year on the weekend of Palm Sunday, St. Scholastica's serves a breakfast to raise funds for church projects. This year, St. John's parishioners volunteered to help for the first time.
"There is a dying happening here," Clinton said. "All of us know that when a relationship concludes in death, there's a period of time where you are uptight. You are confused, you are fearing the future. But God doesn't leave us in a dead end. New life does come."
Rose French • 612-673-4352
« YOU NEED TO HELP PEOPLE TAKE THE BEST FROM THE PAST ... AND CREATE SOMETHING NEW. » REV. KEVIN CLINTON