SISTERS JOYCE AND JOAN. “Our Journey with the Real Church: Faith in the Last Frontier” is available for $8 at W.B. O’Connor Church Goods in Latham, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, the volunteer office at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany and www.lulu.com.

SISTERS JOYCE AND JOAN. “Our Journey with the Real Church: Faith in the Last Frontier” is available for $8 at W.B. O’Connor Church Goods in Latham, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, the volunteer office at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany and www.lulu.com.
Parishes can survive without full-time priests, according to an Albany sister - and she set out to prove that in a book she recently co-authored, "Our Journey with the Real Church: Faith in the Last Frontier."

Sister Joyce Ross, RSM, spent 37 years ministering in Alaskan parishes, eventually becoming parish life director for a community that celebrated Mass with a priest as infrequently as once a month. She said the rest of the country - including the Albany Diocese, where the current roster of about 90 active diocesan parish priests is expected to drop to 39 by the year 2020 - can benefit from her experiences.

"Today, the entire Church is in need of the ordained clergy," Sister Joyce and her colleague, Sister Joan Barina, MMS, wrote in the book. "However, we have noticed that the Church in spite of fewer priests is the Church. The faith-filled laity [are] still practicing and are very aware that they are the Church."

Teaching, learning
Sister Joyce entered her religious community in 1950 and served as a teacher and a principal in Albany diocesan schools for 19 years. She signed up to help parishes in the northern state in the early '70s, first working in Anchorage and then coordinating religious education programs at six Kenai Peninsula parishes.

Sister Joan, a Wisconsin native, entered the Medical Mission Sisters in 1961 and met Sister Joyce while working for the National Hospital system in Alaska. (Read a previous story about their work at www.evangelist.org.)

Both women religious retired to Albany in 2009; they self-published their book in 2010. They currently volunteer at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany, distribute communion to homebound parishioners of Blessed Sacrament parish in Albany and give talks to religious communities about their time in Alaska.

Among parishes in the Albany Diocese, they've found St. Vincent de Paul in Albany similar to the Alaskan parish they led for 20 years, because of its team of sacramental ministers.

In both parishes, "everybody pitches in - all ages," Sister Joyce told The Evangelist.

Lay leadership
At the parish in Kenai, a city of about 6,500 middle-class residents, many laypeople embraced the Second Vatican Council's call for greater involvement.

"We found out there's a lot of holy people out there," Sister Joyce said. "Anything that came out of the parish came from the people. It didn't come from us. We were like the cheerleaders.

"There's a lot that we can do and a lot that the people are willing to do if we just give them the chance," she continued. "We hear all these kind of negative things about the Church. We need to do things that are encouraging [fallen-away Catholics] that there are reasons to stay. Somebody has to make people aware."

Sister Joyce listed a few lay-led parish improvements she's seen: Kenai parishioners installed a weather-proof entry to the church, replaced a concrete slab with a wooden altar and put in a baptismal font. Leftover money from the projects was used to fly vacation Bible school students to outlying villages to expose them to native cultures.

Carrying on
The Alaskan parish was the first on the peninsula to carry on without a full-time priest; eventually, other parishes also had to go weeks without a Mass. In her community, Sister Joyce led communion services (using pre-consecrated hosts) in addition to preaching and officiating at funerals, marriages and baptisms.

Neighboring priests helped with hospital ministry, and Sister Joan served as a pastoral associate. The pair also maintained a food pantry, adult education and other elements of parish life.

Many parishioners used to tell Sister Joyce, "You give us something to hold onto." There were also some who only attended services when a priest was there.

"The sad thing about that is in the end, they kind of cut themselves off from the community," Sister Joyce said.

Other Catholics traveled up to 30 miles to attend the parish; about 180 registered families came regularly - even some from parishes that had priests.

God's still here
Sister Joyce attributes that to the parish's environment of fellowship. "Community does mean a lot," she said. "It's wonderful to have the priest and to have the sacraments, but there's still church even if they don't have the priest.

"God is with us no matter what. We're still praying to the same Jesus. He's there even if Father isn't. I think people realize that."

Sister Joyce has concluded that a priestless parish creates opportunties for more variety in homilies, sparks more lay involvement and gives women in the Church a chance to shine.

"When you look around on Sunday, who's doing all the work?" she remarked. "Women aren't just good for cleaning up."