When parishioners from St. Mary in Belgium/Lake Church and Holy Rosary Parish in Fredonia meet to worship, the church is almost full, the choir sings in one voice, and there’s an energy and sense of community in the name of their new parish, Divine Savior.
The two Ozaukee County parishes merged in July after months of planning. While mergers often bring a sense a loss for the parishioners in their individual Catholic communities, this merger, while acknowledging that loss, also looks to the future as a cohesive gathering of the faithful.
The words “communication, planning, empathy and willingness to listen” were repeated often among those involved in the merger, and were offered as reasons why the merger worked as well as it did.
According to pastoral associate Deb Hamm, mergers are a fact of life for parishioners at Holy Rosary.
“Holy Rosary was a prior merger in 2001 of Holy Cross, just outside of Fredonia, in the Town of Belgium, St. Rose in Fredonia and St. Mary in Little Kohler, which is about five miles north and west of Fredonia,” she said.
Since June 2006, Holy Rosary also clustered with Our Lady of the Lakes in Random Lake, as well as St. Mary in Lake Church. A few years ago, the three parish councils consulted with an outside firm to determine their future. Planning began, in part, because Fr. Richard Fleischman, who had served those parishes, announced he would be retiring.
According to Hamm, “The parish council here in Fredonia kind of really led the process. Having gone through a good merger before, they recognized that it could be done, and it could be done well.”
And they also recognized the value of making things as easy as possible on the next priest.
“We wanted to be attractive to a priest who wanted to come here,” she said.
By consolidating, there would be fewer council meetings, travel time, etc., which would allow the priest more time for ministry.
The consultant suggested a merger would be a positive move. Town meetings were held at all three parishes, and while merging never brings 100 percent acceptance, there was a two-thirds majority agreement at Holy Rosary and St. Mary in Belgium/Lake Church to merge. The parish council at Random Lake chose to remain autonomous, yet stay in the cluster.
At that point, Holy Rosary in Fredonia and St. Mary in Belgium/Lake Church requested that the archdiocese allow them to merge. The archdiocese agreed, and the two churches formed Divine Savior.
While the concept of seeking a merger seems foreign, according to Mark Kemmeter, director of planning and councils for the archdiocese, it is actually preferred that the churches do just that.
“Archbishop Listecki wants parishes to request a merger,” he said, citing several requested, successful mergers throughout the archdiocese.
By requesting a merger, Kemmeter said, some of the sting is removed from the process.
“The merger itself went very smoothly,” he said.
He noted that the leadership at St. Mary and Holy Rosary went out of their way to make certain that people understood what the merger meant.
“They did everything they could to answer questions and make people comfortable with the change,” he said.
Kemmeter said parishioners will benefit from the merger.
“There are many advantages to bringing these parishes together. They will share a pastor and a parish staff,” he said.
He also noted that all of their programs and ministries will be shared.
“In effect, the merger of these two, strong parishes created a single, larger and even stronger entity,” he said.
Currently, the church in Holy Cross, located about two miles east of Fredonia, is the gathering place for Divine Savior. Fr. Todd Budde is the administrator of the new parish. This merger has been the most positive of the four mergers with which he has been associated, according to Fr. Budde.
“Where some of the mergers were two or three on the acceptance scale, this one was a seven or an eight,” Fr. Budde said.
He believes this was, in part, because the merger was requested and the two groups got along and were familiar with one another. But an equally important part, according to Fr. Budde, was the strong leadership of Don Hamm and J.J. Mejchar, the two council presidents at Holy Rosary and St. Mary respectively.
“The leadership of the lay people really came out. They were good leaders,” he said. Those two men co-chair the parish council for Divine Savior.
Mejchar said leadership came from “lessons learned.”
The school at Lake Church had closed prior to the merger, and he said that was much harder.
“There was an obvious difference in this merger. The forced situation (with the school) burnt out a lot of people and left a lot of hard feelings. Communication was the key, along with a willingness to empathize with the loss. Take ownership of the merge, stay in front of the questions and anxieties, and keep the people informed,” he said.
Don Hamm said that many hours were spent trying to do just that.
“There were a lot of good people putting in tons of hours trying to make this work. I’m really impressed with everybody,” he said.
Divine Savior holds the majority of its services at the Holy Cross Chapel at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sunday. Weekday Masses are celebrated at the other chapels in the area.
Deb Hamm said that while the merger went well, there will always be hurt feelings and a sense of loss.
“This merger has gone really well. There are still a lot of hurt feelings out there. I don’t think you can avoid that. But what we need to be is open to listening to people’s pain and allow them to tell their stories … and we have tried to do that,” she said.