Priests caring for multiple communities describe busy days and weeks, but say ministry is possible with lots of help from others

During September and October, Detroit Catholic is asking readers to prayerfully consider a gift to the Catholic Services Appeal, which funds more than 170 ministries vital to the Church in southeast Michigan, including this publication. Visit www.givecsa.org to support the mission by making a gift today. We are grateful for your generosity and prayers.

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — It was last November when Fr. Doug Bignall, pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Harrison Township, received a call from the archbishop.

The pastor of the next parish over, St. Louis in Clinton Township, had recently died, and a successor was needed.

“Fr. Larry Pettke had passed away, and there’s not a big pool (of priests) to pull from. I’m the next parish over, so the archbishop asked me if I would then administer St. Louis as well as St. Hubert,” Fr. Bignall said.

Learn more about the Church’s plans for ‘families of parishes’ at familiesofparishes.org

Fr. Bignall’s situation isn’t unique. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, dozens of priests are currently caring for multiple parish communities as the number of available clergy shrinks. 

By some projections, the Archdiocese of Detroit could have one-third fewer priests over the next decade. The average age, currently 57, is likely to increase, too.

The looming priest shortage is just one of the reasons the Archdiocese of Detroit is preparing to transition to a new model of parish governance, known as “families of parishes,” this Advent. Under that model, multiple priests would be assigned to a parish “family” — likely a group of three to six parishes — rather than a single pastor taking on two or three parishes alone. 

The exact model is still being determined, and will be announced by the archbishop in Advent, but in the meantime, Detroit Catholic spoke with pastors whose current assignments have them shepherding multiple parishes. 

Busy days, full schedules

While most spoke of both blessings and challenges, they admit to busy lives and packed schedules — though they say the work is a sacrifice they’re happy to make.

“It’s a blessing to have different experiences of parish life. Every parish is unique,” Fr. Bignall told Detroit Catholic of managing two communities. “You get to broaden your perspective and the experience you have with a variety of different people.”

Fr. Doug Bignall, pastor of St. Hubert Parish in Harrison Township and administrator of St. Louis Parish in nearby Clinton Township, meets with a family Oct. 18 to discuss funeral arrangements. Between the two parishes, Fr. Bignall is responsible for more than 2,000 families. (Sandi Peltier | Special to Detroit Catholic)

The difficulties? “Well, I can’t bilocate,” he laughed. “I’m not saintly enough yet.”

Between parish council meetings, celebrating Masses and confessions, meeting with families of loved ones who’ve died or attending to mundane tasks like arranging lawn care or haggling with internet providers, priests do the best they can to attend to the needs of the communities they’re assigned. 

Often, one parish is enough responsibility, but having multiple communities that deserve attention — often simultaneously — can be a challenge.

“When something comes up and there’s a conflict where you can’t be in two places at once, yet both need your attention — sometimes at the same time — that’s a major difficulty,” Fr. Bignall said.

Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, pastor of St. Valentine and Our Lady of Loretto parishes in Redford, admits there are some days “when I wish there were more hours in the day.”

Fr. Fernandes’ day typically begins with prayer and morning Mass, usually at Our Lady of Loretto, where he lives. After attending to any office work, he greets the staff before heading to St. Valentine to begin his tasks there.

After a brief stop in the parish office, it’s off to St. Valentine School, where he greets students and teachers. Often, there are funerals, “so I meet with the funeral families and prepare for the funeral liturgy” in the afternoons. “I also tend to sick calls, and then, of course, there are confessions on the weekend or whenever somebody calls, and then on the weekends I have five Masses,” he said.

Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, leaves Our Lady of Loretto on Oct. 27 to begin his rounds at St. Valentine Parish in Redford, the other parish under his care. Fr. Fernandes used to have two deacons and an associate pastor, but now he’s down to a single deacon at Our Lady of Loretto to help him in his sacramental duties. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Fernandes used to have another priest at St. Valentine, but since August has been on his own. He relies heavily on both parish staffs and a deacon at Our Lady of Loretto for support.

“Right now, I only have one deacon. I used to have two deacons, but one was taken away, and one was left. The Scripture came true,” Fr. Fernandes laughed, referring to Matthew 24:40.

Fr. Bignall agreed a priest’s life is often busy, but in every day “there’s always a surprise, something unique.”

On the day he spoke with Detroit Catholic, Fr. Bignall had three meetings — two wedding appointments and a funeral consultation — plus confessions and a 5 p.m. Mass. Days are usually full, he said, especially when the unexpected happens.

“Sometimes things break down or go awry, and you need to prioritize. That’s where the trick is, because you get pulled in different directions,” Fr. Bignall said.

When that happens, deciding what’s most important is a necessary skill, he said. 

“A couple of weeks ago, I had a young man who died of metastatic cancer. And that family needed attention, so you’re there with them,” Fr. Bignall said. “That was more important than battling with Comcast. I try to prioritize what the moment calls for; it’s not always perfect, but you try.”

Priest, prophet and CEO?

Ministry in today’s busy world requires priests to be part spiritual leader, part CEO — a dual role that often calls for a hands-on approach.

Yet, while pastors are the leaders of their parishes, they rely on help from capable staffs and leadership teams to fill in gaps and keep each parish running smoothly.

Fr. Marc Gawronski preaches Aug. 26 during the funeral Mass of his friend, Fr. Stephen Rooney, the late pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Trenton. After Fr. Rooney’s death, Fr. Gawronski, who already was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Grosse Ile and St. Cyprian Parish in Riverview, was asked to assume pastoral responsibilities at St. Joseph as well — though he’s quick to insist he doesn’t find the work to be a burden. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Marc Gawronski, who currently shepherds three parishes — St. Cyprian in Riverview, Sacred Heart in Grosse Ile and St. Joseph in Trenton — said he benefits from “gifted, talented administrators in my parishes who really lighten my burden.”

“Nowadays, you can’t have a conversation about pastoring without including laypeople in the conversation,” Fr. Gawronski said. “No priest I know does what he does without the support of talented, qualified laypeople.”

Fr. Gawronski became pastor of Sacred Heart and St. Cyprian in July, but was asked to take on additional responsibility for St. Joseph after the tragic death of its pastor and Fr. Gawronski’s good friend, Fr. Stephen Rooney, in August.

Fr. Gawronski insists pastoring three parishes — while not without its challenges — isn’t as difficult as some might think. 

“My strength comes comes from the Lord. If I do feel stressed, I breathe and return to ‘being in the moment,’ which means forgetting the worry about the future I can’t control, and renewing my trust in God’s provident love,” he said, adding he also relies on Fr. Rooney’s prayers — “a great source of support and inspiration” — in difficult moments. 

While pastors do meet regularly with consultative bodies such as pastoral and finance councils, the archdiocese has been taking steps to free pastors from certain administrative burdens through the support of parish leadership teams, which arose from the 2016 Amazing Parish Conference and were part of Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s Unleash the Gospel pastoral letter, Fr. Gawronski said.

No pastor can manage the day-to-day responsibilities of even a single parish, let alone many parishes, without the help of competent, qualified lay ecclesial ministers and volunteers, Fr. Gawronski said. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Lay ecclesial ministers — including pastoral associates, directors of religious education and parish volunteers — also take a tremendous weight off a pastor’s shoulders, Fr. Gawronski added.

“They are my support, my sounding board and they are no less a source of comfort and help for God’s people. The image of ministry in the Church is incomplete unless it includes both lay ministers and clergy collaborating together,” he said.

While admitting it’s not for everyone, Fr. Gawronski said he feels ministering in multiple communities has resulted in a life that “is in some ways more fulfilling” than a single parish, he said.

“Just like with everything else, pastors are used to organizing their lives around their pastoral duties, and when you have more than one parish, you simply do that in more than one place,” Fr. Gawronski said. “One of the blessings of priesthood, and parish ministry in general, is that we get to look at the community from many different points of view, frequently in the course of one day.”

How ‘families of parishes’ might help

Fr. Gawronski, Fr. Bignall and Fr. Fernandes all agree that the shift toward “families of parishes” will take getting used to, but expressed hope that a better model of administration will help both clergy and lay leaders to be more missionary.

“The more I think about it, the more I begin to see the wisdom of trying to implement best practices,” Fr. Bignall said. “I’m optimistic that this has the potential to bear great fruit if we’re willing to embrace some of the uncertainty.”

Fr. Doug Bignall receives his flu shot Oct. 18 at the parish — a necessity if he’s going to stay healthy this winter while leading two parishes, he says.
Fr. Bignall celebrates Mass at St. Hubert Parish in Harrison Township. (Sandi Peltier | Special to Detroit Catholic)

For one thing, Fr. Bignall said, families of parishes will be able to share the gifts and talents of everyone within each family — priests and laity alike.

“For example, if the person at St. Louis is extremely good at youth ministry, then we can tap into that person’s gifts and charisms and abilities to help the whole family of parishes,” he said.

Every parish will experience the “family” dynamic differently, Fr. Gawronski added, and no one size will fit all. 

“I believe that there are situations where (parish) clusters can be good building blocks within a family of parishes,” Fr. Gawronski said. “They may not work for every priest, or every parish, but, as the archbishop has pointed out, few solutions do. The strength of families of parishes is that the discernment about how parishes collaborate can happen at a local level.”

Priests, meanwhile, should find themselves with more time to devote to pastoral ministry — something that appeals to Fr. Fernandes. 

Even though he currently celebrates five Masses every weekend, Fr. Fernandes said he wouldn’t trade that part of his ministry — because that’s what he enjoys the most.

Fr. Socorro Fernandes, SAC, spends time in private prayer each morning at his parish rectory before beginning his rounds at Our Lady of Loretto and St. Valentine. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“I feel blessed getting to see people every weekend, because it used to be every other weekend when the associate pastor would do one,” Fr. Fernandes said. “Now, it is every weekend I get to see people (in each parish), and that is my greatest joy.”

But he does admit he could use some help on the administrative front. “I would prefer doing just the ministry, but it’s not possible (now). I just cannot hand things off when they’re my duties,” he said. 

With a little extra help, Fr. Fernandes said he hopes to even get back into some of his hobbies — such as creating stained glass, something he took up about 10 years ago at a parishioner’s suggestion. 

“Your mind is always busy, thinking of something, writing homilies, or doing this or that,” he said. “Sometimes you’re just too busy to get engaged with hobbies or have relaxing time.”

No matter where he’s called to serve, though, Fr. Fernandes said he’ll always do so willingly and joyfully — because that’s ultimately why he became a priest.

Fr. Fernandes prays before a statue of Our Lady of Loretto at the parish that bears her name. He’s served the parish since 2010, adding responsibilities for nearby St. Valentine in 2013. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“As a priest, I’m called to serve, so I try to give my time as much as I can, be it for meetings or doing services. I’ve not gotten angry because too many things are coming up and I can’t handle everything. Nothing of that sort,” Fr. Fernandes said. “People have told me, ‘Father, you’re so calming.’ So maybe it’s inbuilt in me from when I was brought up back in India. I don’t know.

“I have not yet said, ‘I am too tired.’ I don’t use that word,” Fr. Fernandes continued. “As a priest, I enjoy doing whatever comes my way. That’s my duty. But I do it with joy.”

To learn more about “families of parishes,” visit familiesofparishes.org.

RELATED