In a parish with a congregation that is vibrant but aging and smaller and two churches, one site has to go given the realities of finances, people and priests.

The scenario is common in the northeast U.S. and usually resolved through outside review and consultation, such as the diocesan Called to be Church process. Usually the final decision lies with the bishop.

But as part of that pastoral planning, the Parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph’s in Rensselaer asked, and was allowed, to choose which church to shut down. So, on a bright spring evening, more than 100 people gathered at Casey’s Banquet House, a cinder-block structure perched between I-90 and a quiet neighborhood, to discuss their needs and wants for a worship site.

“We’re lucky we have a choice,” said Maureen Vigliante. “We should leap on the opportunity.”

The young mother and librarian typified the intertwined nature of the two worship sites. She, her husband, children and relatives have all worshipped, been baptized or educated at St. John’s, St. Joseph’s or both.

Long history
St. John’s dates to 1851, when Rev. John Corry of Troy said the first Mass in a feed store on Second Avenue in what is now Rensselaer. He began building the first St. John’s the next year. The current and third building, a lofty Romanesque structure with a rare beehive bell tower, went up in 1890. St. Joseph’s, an intimate Gothic church, was built in 1915.

The two, located 1.5 miles apart in the small city, merged into one parish in 2006. Today, 850 families belong and 350 people attend the two Sunday Masses, one held at each. The religious education program has a healthy 150 students. But finances, demographics and the priest shortage still dictate a hard choice.

Those who attended the discernment session were charged with deciding “what worship site would best remain open to serve the needs of the community in the future,” said Rev. Adam Forno, pastor. He emphasized the bright side: “We’re not closing a parish; we’re closing a site.”

The parish process fits within the larger diocesan Called to be Church process.

St. John’s/St. Joseph’s belongs, with neighboring parishes, to a local planning group whose four priests will drop to three or less in several years. Father Forno received a guarantee that the parish will remain a pastoral presence in Rensselaer, where its social services and volunteers minister to 65 homebound seniors and many other groups of needy people.

During Lent, parishioners prepared for discernment through various activities with one theme: “One Lord, one faith, one family.”

The discernment session began with a reading from Romans that included Paul’s encouragement, “Never give patient in the time of trouble.”

Sister Sean Peters, CSJ, moderated the meeting. “Discern-ment is an ancient methods, a prayerful process of decision-making,” she said, one that “is always a choice between goods.”

The process is not perfect, Sister Sean continued, “and everyone has a piece of the truth, and no one has the whole truth.” She asked people to speak freely and listen respectfully. People worked in small groups, and then reported to the entire room. Everyone seemed to know each other; many were related by blood or marriage.

After a time spent breathing in silence, they tackled question one: “What’s important for me in a worship space?”

Helen Russo, 47 and a member for 23 years, expressed a common sentiment: “Feeling welcome, regardless of which [site] we choose, and also good music and song.”

Steve Janenka, a middle-aged man who sat with his father, asked for “good natural lighting, good artificial lighting and good sound quality.” Many echoed those items, along with accessibility, parking, security and “restrooms in the rear.”

One man called out for “a church without collections.” Everyone laughed. Another man, one of the oldest there, seemed puzzled by all the specifics. His priority, he said, was “just going to church, just going to church.”

There was sadness and resignation but surprisingly few negative comments. Most people appeared ready for the final outcome.

One small group cautioned others to think ahead. “We’re planning for now and the immediate future,” said their spokesman. “But we need to plan for the long-term future and who is going to populate this parish then — it’s not necessarily us.”

Notes and comments from the meeting will be considered May 21 by 30 parish leaders, who will decide and notify Bishop Howard J. Hubbard in June. The chosen site will close next year.

Father Forno said the result should sit well with the parish. “We’re using this discernment process instead of yielding to the Bishop’s decision, so there’s ownership. People will say, ‘I helped shape that decision.’”