A timely heads-up for local Catholics

“Keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour.” (Matthew 25:13).

This biblical caveat refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ or judgment day. But in layman’s terms, for the here and now, this heads-up also could apply to another of life’s certainties in western New York: church closings.

Six years ago today, there was dancing in the streets following the announcement from six pulpits that all Catholic churches in Dunkirk and Fredonia would remain open. Since the Diocese of Buffalo’s game plan was to close three of the six churches, the outcome was an epic “David slew Goliath” victory and the only one of its kind throughout the “Journey in Faith and Grace” consolidation of western New York parishes.

The unprecedented change of heart by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec can be traced in large part to the pressure exerted by the activist group, Catholic Parishioners Against Church Suppression (CPACS). Former Dunkirk-Fredonia resident Bill Parks (Pokrzywka) and I founded CPACS, which consisted of five other core members and a smattering of ancillary help. Although our primary goal was to save the two Polish churches (St. Hyacinth and St. Hedwig), we also battled to keep all six houses of worship open.

CPACS may have been small in number, but held three high cards nonetheless: its members were proactive, focused and relentless. For seven months, we clung to an in-your-face agenda while protesting the closing of churches that hadn’t closed. The success of this movement can be attributed for the most part to this proactive stance.

The only local fallout from the Journey was the merging of St. Hyacinth and St. Hedwig parishes to form Blessed Mary Angela Parish. Although St. Hedwig Church (along with St. Joseph in Fredonia) were initially slated to close, both remained open.

The merger of the H&H parishes got off to a rocky start when the diocese decided to play its own version of “trick or treat.” The treat was keeping St. Hedwig’s open. The trick was the chancery’s decision to send a gruff, part-time pastor with no people skills to lead a difficult and sensitive merger. His time in Dunkirk, however, was remarkably short-lived and five years later, BMA remains a vibrant and viable parish.

In addition to two beautiful and well-maintained churches, BMA offers three resident Felician sisters; a variety of ministries, clubs and social activities; a solidly grounded youth group; and special attention by the nuns, pastor and parishioners to the sick, dying and elderly. BMA is the only parish in the world named after Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska, the foundress of the Felician sisters. Further, the only Vatican-certified miracle in the Diocese of Buffalo occurred within this parish.

Although I do not believe BMA parish is in danger of closing in my lifetime, the same can not be said for one of its worship sites. Parishes with two worship sites are especially vulnerable to some whittling down by the Diocese of Buffalo. Many take for granted that when push comes to shove, St. Hyacinth Church will stay and St. Hedwig’s will close, but I am not among them.

Albeit much smaller, St. Hedwig’s is currently able to accommodate weekend worshippers for any given Mass, including the popular 4 o’clock Saturday service. The building is air conditioned with handicapped access at all three entrances. Add to that two ample well-kept parking lots, comparatively inexpensive heating, abundant green space and the best social hall in the county.

St. Hyacinth’s lacks all these bells and whistles. Yet historically it has always been the wealthier parish, and anyone who has been paying attention knows that money makes the diocese go ’round. So I’ll call it a crapshoot as to which church would eventually close, while praying that neither does.

The same uncertain fate awaits a slew of Catholic churches that survived the Journey. Unfortunately, for the next round of church closings, no one outside chancery circles will be forewarned. Owing to the fact that the Journey in Faith and Grace was an unqualified disaster ranking right up there with Obamacare, it will not be repeated. At the appropriate time, the pastor will simply ascend the pulpit and sucker punch his flock by announcing that their beloved church is now toast.

What’s a dedicated parishioner to do? Well, there are no guarantees but the best way to give one’s parish a reprieve is to – give. Preferably more and often. Nothing will shutter a church quicker these days than a yearly financial report whose bottom line is written in red ink. A healthy financial picture at the very least will allow one’s parish to fly under the diocesan radar for the time being.

That being said, local Catholics can rejoice in the fact that six years after Journey’s end, the doors to all six churches remain open. People who were born into their parish continue to be laid to rest in their own church – as it should be. And for the impassioned members of CPACS, that’s all the thanks we need.

Mary Ann Herrington is an OBSERVER Staff Writer. Comments may be sent to mherrington@observertoday.com