After 98 years with St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Dinkytown, the Paulist Fathers will be gone in September. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is replacing them with a diocesan priest.

The move has been considered for “many years,” according to a joint statement issued by the archdiocese and the Paulist Fathers. But it came as a surprise to the Paulists, a religious order serving parishes throughout the country and other parts of the world.

“We were kind of caught off guard by this decision of the archbishop,” said Michael McGarry, president of the Paulist Fathers, based in New York.

McGarry said Archbishop John Nienstedt gave no reason for the change other than wanting diocesan leadership in the Minneapolis church.

Not fully understanding the reason is frustrating, he said. “But at the same time … it wouldn’t make me more or less sad,” McGarry said. “I’m just very, very sad and disappointed in this turn of events and if I knew why, I don’t think that would change much.”

Part of reassignment process

Nienstedt appointed the Rev. Jon Vander Ploeg as the new pastor.

He will replace the current pastor, the Rev. Ivan Tou and the Rev. Robert O’Donnell, campus minister.

The change is part of the archdiocese’s clergy reassignment process, said Jim Accurso, archdiocese spokesman. It occurs every spring and this year involved 40 clergy members and 41 parishes and pastoral assignments.

“The Paulist Fathers have done very fine work at St. Lawrence,” Accurso said.

The recent availability of diocesan clergy and a graduating class of 10 new priests from seminary made the transition possible this summer, according to Accurso. He said the change is a part of a 2009 strategic plan.

The Paulist Fathers were offered another parish in the archdiocese and chaplain positions in two small liberal arts colleges. McGarry said they declined.

“What would we say to people that we’ve served for 98 years?” he said.

The Paulists took the leadership of St. Lawrence parish in 1915 and established the Newman Center to serve the nearby University of Minnesota student population in the 1920s.

The Newman Center was run by diocesan clergy from 1939 to 1991. The Archdiocese merged the Newman Center and St. Lawrence in 1998.

Accurso said that was when the idea of returning St. Lawrence to diocesan clergy began.

St. Lawrence has 639 registered parishioners, according to annual counts, Accurso said.

Students typically don’t register, but about 700 to 800 students come on weekends during the school year.

Campus ministries have been transferred to diocesan clergy elsewhere in the country, said Gary Chamberland C.S.C., vice chair of the executive board at the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. “It doesn’t happen a lot, because there’s not that many players to move around, but it’s not uncommon,” he said.

Tou, the pastor, said he was surprised by the news, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.

“In more recent times, bishops across the U.S. have been taking back their main campus ministries,” he said. “Dioceses today are now recognizing the importance of campus ministry, especially since the future of the church are our young adults and the dioceses are taking ownership of this important ministry.”

Parishioners digest the news

Two years ago, parishioners had to adjust when he joined the parish, Tou said.

“They, however, haven’t had a transition to diocesan leadership in over 98 years, so that can be scary since it is a major unknown,” Tou said.

Gail Studer, who has been a parishioner at St. Lawrence for 12 years, isn’t sure what this will mean for the church community.

“There’s some people that are just so upset that they may not come back,” Studer said. “So it’s hard to say. I will, because I don’t want to go anywhere else. Actually the priest that’s coming, I’m sure he’s a nice man. It’s just that he’s not the same as Father Ivan or the priests that have been here before.”

Shawn McLeod, 51, hopes the transition doesn’t change the dynamics of the church.

“If everybody looks at it with an open mind and has an open attitude about it, and as long as the new priests that are coming are still following along the same way of what people are used to, I think it’ll be fine,” she said. “But there’s always change.”