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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 19, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Anne Rice talks of regaining her faith
St. Alphonsus Liguori
Parish to close June 30
St. Alphonsus Liguori Church was once a restaurant and nightclub that had been transformed into worship space.
luis gris photo

St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish will close at the end of June and merge with one or more parishes also in the San Leandro area, Bishop Allen Vigneron told parishioners in a letter read at weekend Masses, May 10-11.

“After having carefully considered all that I have heard and after my own heartfelt prayer to the Holy Spirit . . . it is my conviction that the proper course is for your parish is to be merged with one or more of the neighboring parishes,” said Bishop Vigneron.

The bishop explained that his decision came after a nearly two-year discernment process beginning with Father Terry Tompkins, a former parochial administrator, and continuing with the Augustinian Fathers who began providing pastoral care to the parish in May of 2007.

Bishop Vigneron said that he had “listened carefully” and consulted with the Diocesan Planning Board, the pastors of neighboring parishes, the Presbyteral Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, St. Alphonsus clergy, and members of the parish council. Throughout the discussions the question the bishop held uppermost in his mind and heart, he said, was, “What was the best way that parishioners could receive pastoral care and be supported in the living out of their baptismal call?”

The parish choir leads the congregational singing during the June 26, 2005, liturgy honoring the parish’s former pastors, staff and longtime members.
luis gris photo
A significant factor in his decision to close the parish next month, the bishop said, was notification from the provincial of the Augustinians that they will no longer be able to administer the parish after June 30. Two of their members, Father Kevin Mullins, and Father Paul Quante, pastor and parochial vicar respectively of Our Lady of Grace Parish in nearby Castro Valley, have been responsible for the St. Alphonsus Parish for the past year.

Bishop Vigneron expressed the hope that the St. Alphonsus parish property would continue to be used “for the benefit of the wider community and the common good.”

He acknowledged the sorrow and difficulties which take place “when any family must set out from a place they have grown to love, a place filled with fond memories and to take up a new home.”

Parish council member Ida Valenzuela, a member for 35 years and one of those sorrowful parishioners, said she remembers a time in 1962 when Sunday Mass attendance was 1240 adults and 599 children. The numbers gradually went down over the years, she said, whenever there was a turnover of pastors. “Every change we experienced has led to a decline.” In 1977 numbers had dwindled to 500. There are presently 150 church-going members, many of them senior citizens.

Changing demographics also played a role in decreasing numbers, she said. “Many of our young families have moved from the Bay Area in search of more reasonable housing. Others have enrolled their children in a Catholic school and have transferred their energies to the school locale.” The numerous apartments in the area have also led to a high level of transience, she said.

The bishop’s letter was expected, but people did not anticipate its arriving on Mother’s Day weekend — when people are in a celebrative mood. “It wasn’t the best timing,” she observed. She said that after the lengthy discernment period of meetings with diocesan officials, parishioners are “resigned but sad.”

Valenzuela praised the Augustinian priests from Our Lady of Grace for “their good leadership, solid guidance and dynamic preaching. But many people feel that their efforts came at a time when ‘the tide had turned.’ For several years we have been under a cloud of uncertainty regarding the future of the parish and perhaps some were hesitant to be an active part of a parish with so much uncertainty.”

During that time, many factors came into play, said Father Mark Weisner, director of communications for the diocese. Included in those factors were the 10 essentials needed to make a viable parish. These criteria were proclaimed by the Diocesan Pastoral Council in 2003. In looking at those criteria the parish council held a town hall meeting last February attended by 85 parishioners, along with the two Augustinian priests and Carol Potter, diocesan director of pastoral planning.

Highlighting the positivies

The parish council highlighted the positives of their small parish and the reasons for its continuance as opposed to the Diocesan Planning Board’s recommendations that the parish be merged. Positive attributes came in the areas of outreach and social concern, with a strong St. Vincent de Paul Society; on-site informational missionary programs sponsored by Maryknoll, one of their resident renters; hospitality, dinners and welcoming of newcomers; diverse cultures (Portuguese, Latino and Filipino) working together on parish matters; daily Mass fellowship and Tuesday Scripture classes.

The council named as borderline attributes its worship and the educational formation of children, noting that the same people keep being tapped for lectoring and Eucharistic minister duties and a scarcity of children has meant no religious education programs.

On the negative side were the prospects of expensive retrofitting of church facilities, the reality of changing demographics and location, plus no adult faith or RCIA programs, no outreach to unchurched or surrounding residents, and considerable turnover of leadership.

During the meeting, parishioners developed suggestions for the bishop and Diocesan Planning Board as to how the parish could remain open. They included launching a three- to five-year capital campaign, using church property as a rental income source, utilizing the parish rectory as a retirement center for the diocese, building new facilities to attract more parishioners and renters, redesignating St. Alphonsus as a mission church, and applying for funds from the Bishop’s Appeal, which has as one of its purposes to give help to needy parishes.

Shortly after the announcement that the parish will close, Deacon George Peters, a staff member for the past 10 years and chaplain at Fairmont Hospital, said he believes “there’s nothing wrong with a small parish. We are very close-knit. Everybody gets involved in everything we do.” He said five or six parishioners accompany him each Sunday to participate in the Communion service patient visitations at Fairmont.

Peters is concerned that the parish’s large, active St. Vincent de Paul Society will have to relocate to another parish.

‘Saddened for the community’

Father Mullins told the Catholic Voice that both he and Father Quante “are saddened for the community as they prepare for the closure of their parish. In this past year, we have been blessed in coming to know the faithful members of that community and we have developed a profound respect — grateful for their deep faith and committed witness to it.”

New parish boundaries for neighboring parishes will be drawn to incorporate St. Alphonsus. The closure/merger comes 53 years after San Francisco Archbishop John J. Mitty established the parish in 1955. The Redemptorist Congregation of Most Holy Redeemer sent Father Raymond Troik to become the first pastor. A building that once housed a restaurant and a night club was transformed into a church.

The next year, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Monroe, Michigan, came to teach in the parish school and remained there until June 1968. After they left, the San Rafael Dominican Sisters staffed the school for one year. It closed in the early 1970s. Today a charter school leases the site.

Soon after its establishment, the parish began an outreach ministry to Fairmont Hospital, a county medical facility. Just two years later, the Redemptorist chaplains reported that 11,000 patients had been visited, 3,000 holy Communions distributed, 2,437 Confessions heard, and 304 Catholics died with the last sacraments. After the Redemptorists returned the parish to the diocese in 1983, they continued their services to the hospital with a stipend from the parish.

When that arrangement ended in the late 1990s Deacon Peters organized a lay ministry program, which also provides care to patients at nearby convalescent care facilities nursing homes and a palliative care program. In recent years, the outreach program has incorporated the needs of increasing numbers of older parishioners who are shut-ins.

No decisions have been made regarding the church property itself. Two priests and Deacon Peters live in the rectory. The charter school lease lasts through this summer. Maryknoll maintains an office in the convent. Deacon Matt Dulka, regional director, said he will remain there for a time, but plans to relocate to another parish.

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