TABOR — As he looked out Tuesday night at several hundred people, Bishop Paul Swain spoke — and listened — about his proposals to merge or link a number of Catholic parishes in southeast South Dakota.
“It’s important that we be in a church to discuss these issues,” he told the audience at a packed St. Wenceslaus Church in Tabor. “The (Holy) Spirit is part of whatever we end up doing.”
The meeting was one of the final steps in the process for the Yankton Deanery that began in 2009. The bishop will make final decisions for the Sioux Falls diocese, covering the 45,000 square miles east of the Missouri River, as early as July 1.
A rapidly shifting population within the diocese, along with a growing shortage of priests, has sped up the need to make changes, Swain said.
“There have been changes in demographics, and during the last three or four years, a lot has changed,” he said. “The number of priests available in the diocese has declined. This year, we lost all but one of our religious order priests.”
Currently, 78 priests are serving as pastors, many with multiple parishes, while nine are in non-pastoral assignments such as chaplaincies, eight are serving as associates, and five are serving in special circumstances.
The pastoral planning goals remain the assurance of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, throughout the diocese; the offering of a solid faith formation, including religious education for young people; assuring vibrant and vital parishes; and respecting and protecting the spiritual and physical health of priests.
Swain is proposing the following changes to parish structures within the Yankton Deanery effective July 1:
• Saint Agnes Parish, Sigel, would be merged with Saint John the Baptist Parish, Lesterville;
• Saint Columba Parish, Mayfield, would be merged with Saint Boniface Parish, Idylwilde.
In addition, Swain is contemplating the following linkages:
• Saint John the Baptist Parish, Wagner; Assumption Parish, Dante; and Saint Paul Parish, Marty, would have the same priest assigned as pastor.
• Saint Mark Parish, Lake Andes, and Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, Armour, would have the same priest assigned as pastor.
• Saint Leo Parish, Tyndall; Saint Vincent Parish, Springfield; and Saint Wenceslaus Parish, Tabor, would have the same priest assigned as pastor.
• Saint George Parish, Scotland, a merged parish in the Idylwilde and Mayfield area, and a merged parish in the Lesterville and Sigel area would have the same priest assigned as pastor.
• Good Shepherd Parish, Centerville; Saint Patrick Parish, Wakonda; and Saint Teresa of Avila Parish, Beresford, would have the same priest assigned as pastor.
• Saint Peter Parish, Jefferson; Saint Joseph Parish, Elk Point; and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, Dakota Dunes, would have the same priest assigned as pastor. The priest for these parishes would receive assistance from the priest directing the Saint Thomas More Newman Center, Vermillion.
The proposal drew a number of comments and proposals about the possibilities of alternating Masses between churches, the use of permanent deacons and other personnel, keeping linkages to two parishes, and serving special ministries such as the Broom Tree retreat center near Irene and Mike Durfee State Prison at Springfield.
One alternative proposal was offered by Mark Kronaizl, president of the St. Wenceslaus parish council in Tabor.
“You are talking about linking Tyndall, Tabor and Springfield, which are 522 families. Perhaps that’s expecting too much for one priest,” Kronaizl told the bishop.
Instead, the diocese could link the Scotland, Springfield and Tyndall parishes, which have 411 families. A priest could remain in Tabor and also serve the merged parishes of Idylwilde-Mayfield and Lesterville-Sigel with a combined 454 families.
The Tabor priest would be closer to Yankton for hospital visits and other ministries, Kronaizl said.
“And Yankton is growing more to the west, and along the river, so we could pick up more families,” he added.
St. Wenceslaus member Ken Kocer reiterated the feelings about keeping a priest in Tabor. He noted that 60 percent of the town’s 400 residents are Catholic, and the parish has maintained its rectory. The church serves more than 1,000 at its annual bazaar, provides hundreds of meals during Czech Days, and conducts retreats and service projects.
“The parish gets a lot of support from the community,” he said. “We are the only church and the only Christian presence in Tabor.”
St. Wenceslaus, and Tabor in general, consists of young families, a stable population and proximity to Yankton, Kocer said.
“I know it sounds self-serving (to make the request for keeping a priest),” Kocer said. “I have been a member of this parish for 50 years. It means so much to us to have a priest in our town.”
The question arose about using priests from Yankton, but Swain and audience members noted those priests already serve heavy parish assignments at Sacred Heart Church and St. Benedict Church, along with other responsibilities.
Swain noted he has ordained 21 priests since he became bishop in 2006, and another 22 men are studying in the seminary. However, the new priests would not offset past and future shortages, he said.
“By 2017, my hope is that we have 10 more (priests),” he said. “The hope is out there to some degree, but it doesn’t make up for the losses over the years,” he said. “Five or six (priests) could retire over the next six years. And if you send out young priests too soon, before they can handle the administrative duties, that’s not good.”
St. George parishioner Frank Kloucek of Scotland asked the bishop to keep churches open and priests in parishes where possible.
“If you take a priest out of (places like) Tabor and Scotland, you take the heart and soul out of rural Catholicism,” Kloucek said.
However, St. George parishioner Linda Kluthe of Scotland said the diocese, including those gathered Tuesday night, also need to face the new realities.
“I feel the pain and have come to terms with the fact that there will be change. A priest shortage is nothing new to us. This has been going on for 20 years,” she said. “We all have to give a little bit. We can’t have a priest run to five different parishes. We are going to have to come together. We’re dealing with the realities of how much our priests do for us.”
Mary Cotton of Wagner, a member of St. John the Baptist Church, joined with others in attendance who credited Swain for his efforts to help rural parishes as best he can.
“I praise you for your hard work,” she told the bishop. “You can’t multiply what you don’t have, and you’ve done a wonderful job.”
Swain thanked those who attended Tuesday’s meeting and encouraged more comments by email and other means.
He said he realized the turmoil that comes with challenges to one’s parish, especially if one has been a lifetime member. He added that he hoped that the current changes would not need to be repeated again in the foreseeable future.
The meeting closed with prayer, and the bishop asked the faithful to remain focused on the primary part of their Christian beliefs.
“It’s a very emotional and difficult thing when there is change. But if a more vibrant church comes forth, that is a great joy,” he said.
“Our faith is not just buildings. It is about our relationship with Jesus Christ.”