Pastoral coordinators keep parishes humming

REDLANDS, Calif. – It’s a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon at Holy Name of Jesus Parish and Precious Blood Sister Mary Garascia (Thomas Miriam) is visiting faith formation classes. With a bright smile and plenty of enthusiasm she delivers a lesson on the sacraments to fourth graders, then drops in on a classroom of fifth and sixth graders to talk about Lent.

Later she takes a group of third graders through Stations of the Cross in the parish church, all the while fielding questions from the kids.

On this day she will also chat with parishioners before and after Masses, read announcements, talk with parish staff and stop by her parish office to check up on email.

Come Monday morning she’s back at the parish to begin her workweek as pastoral coordinator of this bustling Catholic community of about 3,000 families. One of about a dozen pastoral coordinators in the San Bernardino Diocese, Sister Mary leads the parish in the absence of a pastor. She was appointed to the position in 2008 by San Bernardino Bishop Gerald R. Barnes.

On her staff are Rev. Oscar Reynoso, Fr. Wharren Banico, and Msgr. Cesar “Ching” Encinares who celebrate Masses, provide the other sacraments and pastoral care. They are sacramental ministers, but none is parish pastor. It’s Sister Mary who oversees the staff, conducts meetings, keeps an eye on the budget, writes the weekly column in the parish bulletin, and is leading the process to build a new church.

The job requires a “broad skill set,” she says, explaining that her past experience as a teacher, parish director of religious education, manager of Hoover Place, and service on the Sisters’ congregational leadership team prepared her to be a pastoral coordinator.

“You have to know enough about every area to supervise well. That’s why it helps to have a broad ministry experience,” she said. “There is very little I encounter in which I haven’t had some transferrable experience.”

The pastoral coordinator model of parish leadership is outlined in Canon Law 517.2, which enables a diocesan bishop to entrust operation of a parish to a layperson in the event of a priest shortage.

A veteran pastoral coordinator, Sister Mary previously served in similar jobs at parishes in Ohio and Michigan. She first ran the now-closed Assumption Parish in Dayton from 1995-98, reporting to a neighboring pastor, Fr. John Krumm, who gave her leeway to handle administration and build rapport with parishoners. After a sabbatical and three years managing Hoover Place in Dayton, Sister Mary was named parish life director at St. Mary Parish in Hemlock, Mich., in 2002.

After six years in Michigan, Sister Mary moved to California and the Holy Name of Jesus. It wasn’t the easiest assignment. Parishioners were still upset over a 2006 merger of two parishes that had created the new Holy Name of Jesus. They also felt betrayed by a previous pastor, who left the parish abruptly – without saying goodbye – and eventually left the priesthood.

During her first weekend on the job, Sister Mary spoke at all the Masses and encouraged parishioners to share their grief and concerns, said Sharon Callon Schwartz, the parish’s director of pastoral life and communications.

“That was very courageous, especially in a very angry place,” Callon Schwartz said. “I think how good it was that she did that. One thing she’s always done has been very transparent.”

That transparency, her empowerment of laity and collaborative management style helped sooth hurt feelings and helped the parish heal.

“There was resistance in the beginning to a coordinator,” said Kathie Cejka, a parishioner for 30 years. “First of all we weren’t over the merger and then we lost the pastor who was appointed. There were a lot of hard feelings there so she really had to come into a very difficult situation. She took her time and I think she has won over most of the parish and things are much better, a much happier feeling.”

Today parishioners and staff embrace her style and speak of the parish growth.

“I think she’s wonderful,” Cejka said. “She is a great leader, a great educator and someone with a lot of foresight for the parish.”

The parish coordinator model of administration in San Bernardino was initiated by former San Bernardino Bishop Phillip F. Straling and has been expanded under Bishop Barnes.

The model works as parishioners begin to understand and accept it, Bishop Barnes explained in an interview with Sharing & Caring.

“I think people have seen that the parishes do not regress,” he said. “The parishes thrive. We’ve seen in a couple of our parishes where a pastoral coordinator was in office when a new church was dedicated. They helped build that church. That says a lot to the people there.”

With the pastoral coordinator and sacramental minister working together, the model provides an adequate balance of parish administration and evangelization.

“The key is in forming a good team,” Bishop Barnes said. “If there is collaborative ministry and there is transparency and trust, then you can do both because you recognize where the gifts are. It’s not about us. It’s about the mission of Christ and His presence.”

The 517.2 model enables priests to focus more on sacramental ministry, for which they are best trained. The parishioners benefit because their parishes are well-run and they can receive more focused pastoral care.

“One of the most crucial factors is the behaviors of the priests who are assigned,” Sister Mary said. “They have to understand and support the model.”

The reality, Bishop Barnes said, is that there simply aren’t enough priests to administer parishes, much less serve in other ministries. The coordinators keep parishes running today while giving the local ordinary additional options for utilizing priests as more are ordained.

Today all the parishes in the San Bernardino diocese are being prepared for coordinators as the model moves from parish to parish. The diocese uses the model in a single parish for no more than nine years. Pastoral coordinators are initially appointed for three years and can then be reappointed for a six-year term before moving on. That strategy helps allay fears that a parish is being slighted because a coordinator is assigned.

“Initially people, unfortunately, saw this in some ways as their parish being treated as second class because they didn’t have a priest as pastor,” the bishop explained. “I did not want to say that a parish would have this model forever.”

While coordinators help address the immediate priest shortage, Bishop Barnes prays that the model will be maintained in some form even when priests are available.

“I don’t think we can do ministry well, with the challenges we face today, without the shared ministry,” he said. “We need to help build those teams.”

The diocesan bishop needs to embrace the model for it to be effective, said Precious Blood Sister Marita Beumer, who worked as a pastoral coordinator at three parishes in the San Bernardino Diocese for about 10 years.

“You couldn’t do it without the bishop being totally immersed in it,” Sister Marita said. “He respects us, but he calls us to task as well.”

As pastoral coordinator at St. Bernardine Parish in San Bernardino, she helped preserve and renovate the church built in 1910, the oldest building in the diocese. Another task was bringing together the various cultures that made up the parish. She would hold events for both the English-speaking and Hispanic communities. In time they started to blend.

We had English and Spanish speakers, but have one community,” she said. “We had everybody together.”

Coordinators typically bring collaborative leadership to parishes, Sister Marita said.

“Most of us who were coordinators, men and women both, learned to use the laity a little more effectively,” she said. “That whole idea of acceptance, inclusivity, pastoral leadership is one of the key things.”

Sister Berenice (M. Edward) Janszen served as coordinator at a total of five parishes in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky.

Her longest tenure was at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Otisville, Mich., where she served for four years in the 1980s. She created a woman’s club at the parish, a liturgy committee, began a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program and helped run the parish religious education program, she recalled. Among her biggest projects: overseeing the construction of a new church.

“I was able to really move the church into a lot of new areas. I think you have to be open to listening to the people and I think you have to have high dreams of what you want the parish to become,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

Another example of the Sisters doing ecclesial work usually delegated to ordained persons occurs in mission countries. There, pastoral associates and catechists have enhanced roles in creating local ecclesial communities and ministering to them.

The late Sister Rosalina Gonzales (Maria Carona) was one of the earliest Precious Blood Sisters to serve in the coordinator ministry when she began that type of work in Chile in the 1970s. She was replaced by Sisters Regina Albers (M. Regina) and Marifé Hellman.

In Chile, the Sisters had the responsibility of a rural parish, Los Bajos de San Agustin, where they worked with the youth, took communion to the sick and guided the Catechists in the outlying areas. In an unusual move, they were also granted faculties to administer the sacraments of marriage and baptism, as well as conducting funeral services. The Mass and Sacrament of Penance were offered by a Priest from a neighboring parish.

“It was very fulfilling,” recalled Sister Regina, who worked in the parish for about two years. “The people responded beautifully.”

One of her most treasured stories of those days was of a family who had a newborn infant. Sister Regina visited the family shortly after the baby was released from the hospital and noticed the baby still seemed ill. Sister Regina urged the family to return to the hospital to have the infant examined. The family resisted a trip back to the hospital, but eventually agreed to go. A couple of weeks later, the grateful parents visited Sister Regina with their now healthy baby. Had Sister not insisted they return to the hospital, the baby likely would have died.

It was a unique time for the Sisters in Chile, especially with the faculties they were given.

“I think looking back, it’s more awesome than what I felt when I was doing it,” Sister Regina said. “I feel it was a very special gift that was given to me, and I thank God I was able to reach out to the people and touch their lives and bring God to them in a very pastoral way.”

Ed. note: Sister Mary will be starting a new job as a special assistant to the pastor at the parish beginning July 1. Fr. Raynoso has been named pastor. Sister Mary will work with him on special projects and other ministries.

- Story and photos by Dave Eck