"We're used to one priest per parish," said Deacon Frank Berning, director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. "Well, we're not going to be able to do that in this diocese."

As the number of priests available to serve parishes across the Albany Diocese declines, it's shaping the way diocesan leaders are planning for the future.

That's led to a handful of big decisions recently, including:

• the merger of Our Lady of Fatima and St. Helen's parishes in Schenectady to become Blessed (soon to be Saint) Kateri Tekakwitha parish, effective July 1;

• the shift from using the term "Local Planning Groups" for groups of parishes to calling them "Local Catholic Communities," a better way of signifying partnerships;

• the linking of Sacred Heart and St. Mary's parishes in Albany, which now share a pastor and parish life coordinator and plan other collaborations; and

• the proposed sale and destruction of the former St. Patrick's Church, school and rectory in Watervliet to build a Price Chopper supermarket and other retail space.

Proponents say the latter change would generate about $135,000 in property taxes in the first year after construction and that this income would remain in Watervliet to benefit its Catholic community. Opponents wish for historical designation for the towering, 19th-century church, which closed when six parishes in Watervliet and Green Island merged in 2005.

A total of 35 parishes in the Diocese closed or merged by the end of 2009 through the "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process. Now, officials are studying new ways to maintain and enhance the Catholic presence in the 14 counties the Diocese covers.

Technology and teamwork
For instance, diocesan information technology staff are examining online meeting programs to bring enrichment and training to the 70 rural parishes. Some of the Diocese's 11 diaconal candidates, who currently visit the Pastoral Center in Albany weekly, would benefit from fewer trips.

"When we can put something in their backyard, it makes for a much better situation," Deacon Berning explained.

Leaders from the diocesan Kateri Institute for Lay Ministry Formation already take their three-year program on the road to Otsego County, and they plan to bring it to Greene County this fall.

The Diocese is also looking at ways to help rural parishes like Our Lady of Hope in Fort Plain, which sprung from the merger of three Montgomery County parishes, to coordinate their outreach efforts.

In all, said Deacon Berning, the Diocese hopes to create more "stress-free" opportunities for collaboration among the 127 current parishes.

Desire to thrive
People in the pews should "change their energy from fear of closure" to willingness to accept change, he said: "We want to do more than survive. We want to survive and thrive, and we can thrive."

A team model has succeeded in other parts of the country, Deacon Berning said. For example, three or more parishes might share a pastoral council, a pastor or parish life director, a retired priest or sacramental minister, a handful of lay ecclesial ministers and a few deacons.

This frees priests to "truly be the spiritual leader of their community. We need to create an environment where it's not only better for parishioners, but also for the leaders of that parish," said Deacon Berning.

Rev. Edward Kacerguis, pastor of Christ Sun of Justice parish in Troy, has been collaborating with other parishes for years. He combs the Diocese and country for speakers for a Lenten series and invites every priest, pastor and parish life director in the Diocese to attend.

His parish, located on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, works with nearby St. Augustine's and Our Lady of Victory parishes for penance services and more.

Still, Father Kacerguis understands many Catholics' reluctance to visit unfamiliar parishes.

"We are creatures of habit," he said. "We have to be very respectful of where people are."

Schenectady merger
Perhaps the best model of teamwork right now is Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha parish, the upcoming Schenectady merger named after the Mohawk maiden who will soon become the first Native American saint. (Leaders are considering covering the word "Saint" on new parish signs until the canonization in October.)

That merger has been considered for some time, and parishioners have been preparing accordingly. Parish teams are being created for administration and finances, faith formation, pastoral care and outreach, and evangelization and liturgy.

Each team will have leaders, their own councils and representation on the new pastoral council. The pastor will act as CEO, while the parish manager will act as chief operating officer, according to Deacon Richard Thiesen, former parish life director of Our Lady of Fatima parish.

"This is an attempt to get people to speak to one another," explained to Deacon Thiesen, who became parish life director for Christ Our Light parish in Loudonville last month.

Rev. Robert Longobucco, pastor for St. Helen's and Our Lady of Fatima, remarked that "everything we do affects everything else, but it's easy to pretend it doesn't."

Ahead of the July merger, leaders are trying to make both worship sites feel like one community.

"It should never feel like an 'away game,' no matter which place you go," Father Longobucco said. "It takes a lot of people to do this right. At the end of the day, the reason we merged is because we minister well together."