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8/13/2009
CALLED TO BE CHURCH
Losing a parish hard for pastors, too
MAUREEN MCGUINNESS
STAFF WRITER

Rev. George Fleming was happy to leave the squirrels in the North Country of the Albany Diocese when he was reassigned to a new parish, but sad to say goodbye to his parish family.

Father Fleming laughed as he shared stories of the persistent squirrels that tried to get into the rectory while he served as administrator of St. John the Baptist Church in Chestertown, St. James in North Creek and Blessed Sacrament in Hague.

"I miss the people, but not the squirrels," he said.

Other than the rodent-free rectory, adjusting to life at Holy Trinity parish in Schaghticoke was still emotional: "It's really hard to move," he said. "Moving is a fact of life, but there are a lot of emotions involved."

Called to change
Many Catholics throughout the 14 counties of the Diocese are dealing with the loss of a familiar church as their parishes merge or close during the "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process. Perhaps less often noticed is that such transitions are also challenging for pastors.

Priests often report being reinvigorated by the process - at least eventually.

Father Fleming said that "priests understand how difficult and painful moving can be."

Like anyone facing a move, a priest must pack up his belongings, contact the phone company and make arrangements for his bills to be forwarded. In addition, he must make sure all of the parish paperwork is in order to help ease the transition for the incoming priest or administrator.

While Father Fleming likes to keep in touch with his friends from his previous parishes, it can be a challenge. 

"I've been a priest for 15 years," he remarked. "I've watched some people grow up, and now they're getting married. They want me to officiate [at weddings and baptisms], but I can't always do that."

As much as he wants to be a part of the weddings and funerals at his former parishes, the shortage of priests makes it difficult to find coverage for his own weekend Masses.

For Rev. James Clark, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Canajoharie, St. James in Fort Plain and St. Patrick's in St. Johnsville, packing and paperwork aren't the difficult part of a move. Father Clark had served in the military for 20 years prior to entering the priesthood, so he was used to moving.

Learning the customs of a new parish and learning how to get around to all of the nursing homes and hospitals are the real challenge, he said. 

In addition, Father Clark's new pastorate is a merging parish that must make decisions about which of its three worship sites will remain open. It's a time of change for Father Clark as well as for his parishioners, who don't really know him yet.

"I don't want to change anything," he said. "But we've been called to merge. The people have that anxiety to deal with."

This was Father Clark's sixth move as a priest. It's also his first assignment that involves a parish with multiple locations. 

"Right now I'm trying to get to know where everything is," he said, joking: "The Thruway has become my home base."

Like Father Fleming, Father Clark said moving brings a wide range of emotions. "It's a mixture of joyful anticipation to trepidation," he said. "The hardest thing is the emotional ties you have with the people" at a prior assignment.

In mourning
While Fathers Fleming and Clark have become accustomed to moving as part of their ministry, Rev. Robert Hohenstein is still feeling some pain.

Now pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Schenectady, he previously served for 32 years at Our Lady Help Of Christians parish in Albany.

Father Hohenstein explained that changing demographics in the Diocese led to the closure of Our Lady Help of Christians. 

"I wanted to be there when it closed," he noted. "The people knew me and trusted me. We went out with style, dignity, and grace."

After over three decades at one parish, moving on was emotional. "That was my family," he recalled. "It was my parish family."

When he was assigned to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it was an emotional time for him. However, his new parishioners were also struggling with difficult feelings, as their pastor of 32 years was removed from the priesthood.

"I told them we were starting over together," Father Hohenstein remembered. 

The priest was surprised when a group of 10 of his former parishioners from Albany began coming to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He said the people of Our Lady of Mount Carmel welcomed the newcomers and "accepted them lovingly into the parish."

As hard as it was to close his former parish, Father Hohenstein said his move to Schenectady was part of a larger plan.

"God brings you where He will," the priest concluded.







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