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3 parishes to share 1 pastor

The Rev. Jack Ahern at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline. He will oversee three parishes in Dorchester. The Rev. Jack Ahern at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline. He will oversee three parishes in Dorchester. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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The Archdiocese of Boston, facing a growing shortage of priests but reluctant to close more churches, plans to name one pastor to oversee three parishes in the historically Catholic neighborhood of Dorchester, a practice never before used in Boston.

The three-parish pastorate, already common in much of the Midwest, provides a window into the future shape of Catholicism in Eastern Massachusetts. Scholars say that 40 percent of priests in America already serve more than one parish, but the phenomenon has been rare in the urban Northeast, where the high Catholic population for decades generated a high number of priests.

Now inexorable demographic shifts are catching up with the Archdiocese of Boston, where the priest population is getting smaller and older, the number of people who identify as Catholic is declining, and many churchgoing Catholics have migrated away from the urban centers where most churches are located. The archdiocese already has 14 priests who oversee two parishes; the Rev. John J. Ahern will be the first to oversee three when he takes over Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Holy Family, and St. Peter parishes in May.

"The reality is that in the very near future we will not have the number of priests to meet the number of parishes we have, and so we need to be efficient and effective in the use of our resources," said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese. "This is, on the one hand, a continuation of a trend that has already begun in the archdiocese, but it is also a preview of what we expect to be happening down the road."

The major benefit to assigning multiple parishes to a priest is that it allows the diocese to avoid closing the parishes. But the move can be stressful and exhausting for the priest, who must find a way to juggle all the sacramental needs - baptisms, weddings, funerals, and Masses - at multiple locations, while trying to get to know parishioners and minister to them in less formal ways.

"It's challenging, and it can be frustrating and lonely if you don't prioritize," said the Rev. Caleb Vogel, a 31-year-old priest who oversees three parishes and three missions over 100 square miles in southeastern Idaho. "But when I was a seminarian I worked in Michoacan, Mexico, and a priest there had 13 parishes. We in the US have been spoiled, having this one-priest-per-parish thing. It's just a matter of perspective."

Across the country, many dioceses have long assigned priests to multiple parishes. Many of the multiparish priests are in rural areas with small Catholic populations, but some are in urban areas; the Seattle Archdiocese has at least a dozen priests who oversee three parishes, including some in the urban areas of Seattle and Tacoma.

"We on the East Coast have not been hit by the problem as much as the Midwest, where in some places 90 percent of parishes share a pastor, but it's coming," said Charles E. Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University. "The alternative would be to close parishes, especially inner-city parishes that are close to one another, but Catholics have a real love for their parishes and prefer this to seeing their parishes close."

Ahern, 55, is one of the more highly regarded priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. The longtime pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption parish in Brookline, he is popular among his parishioners and well liked by chancery officials - characteristics that do not always go hand in hand. The Arlington native served at parishes in Weymouth, Quincy, and Hingham before being assigned to Brookline 16 years ago.

He will have help from a second priest, a parochial vicar, and hopes to have help from retired priests and priests who speak the languages of Dorchester's many immigrant communities. But he said he will also have to rely on heavy lay involvement to help oversee parish finances and ministries such as hospital visits, and to manage the buildings.

"I'm not there to run plants; I'm there to be a priest," he said. "We'll have to recognize the gifts and talents of the parishioners and try to give them a more active role in the work of the church, so I can have a heavier focus on sacramental things."

Ahern said he has not decided where he will live. The rectory at Blessed Mother Teresa was torn down last year, and the rectory at St. Peter's is for sale, so he said he is choosing between rectories at Holy Family and the nearby St. Ambrose Parish.

"My first challenge is to get to know Dorchester itself. I've been driving the streets trying to figure out where everything is," Ahern said. He said his goal for the parishes is "to build, and make them more vibrant, and see what we can do to keep them going."

He has considerable experience dealing with the emotions of reconfiguring parishes. When he arrived in Brookline, there were four parishes; today there is one, with two campuses. One of the closed parishes was for a time occupied by protesters.

The Dorchester parishes have also seen considerable consolidation in recent years. Holy Family was formed in 1995 out of St. Paul and St. Kevin parishes, and Blessed Mother Teresa was formed in 2004 out of St. Margaret and St. William parishes. And last year the archdiocese consolidated seven parochial schools into one regional school, the Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, which now has 1,400 students on five campuses in Dorchester and Mattapan.

The parish in Brookline is also nearly the size of the three parishes in Dorchester, which itself illustrates the transformation of Catholicism in the region. The Brookline parish has weekly Mass attendance of 1,400, according to the archdiocese; the combined Mass attendance at the three Dorchester parishes is 1,860.

But the Dorchester parishes, once dominated by Irish-Americans, are now considerably more ethnically diverse than the Brookline parish. Blessed Mother Teresa has several hundred Vietnamese-Americans, Holy Family has a substantial Spanish-speaking community, and St. Peter's has a large Cape Verdean community.

"I wish Father Ahern all the luck in the world, but what the outcome will be is anybody's guess," said Patricia Linehan, who has worshiped at St. Peter's for about seven decades. "This is not a surprising thing, in light of the situation in the church, and we've known it was going to happen for a few months. It's a very sad situation, but it's also realistic."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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