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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 24, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 2   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
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Two parishes become
one in the Island City

St. Albert the Great Church, founded in 1976, is one of the two Alameda parishes in the merger. Both churches remain open.
josé luis aguirre photos
St. Philip Neri Church, founded in 1925, has shared some services with St. Albert the Great for several years.

After operating as a cluster parish for more than three years, two Alameda parishes — St. Philip Neri and St. Albert the Great — are merging.

Daily and Sunday Masses are continuing to be celebrated at both churches.

The merger of the two parishes — to be known as St. Philip Neri and St. Albert the Great Parish — was announced to parishioners by Father Joy Kumarthusseril in the Jan. 16 bulletin and does not signal major changes.

“It has been a long journey!” the pastor wrote. “The driving force that impelled the journey has brought the two communities together supporting and encouraging one another in various pastoral, spiritual and financial endeavors. Remarkable was the collaboration both within and among faith communities.”
The gradual combination of a number of ministries, including adult faith formation and evangelization as well as youth ministry, have been going on for years. One bulletin is produced. Among the final steps in the merger is the creation of a single finance committee and a single parish council for the parish.

“Initially, three years back, there were some perplexities: ‘What’s going to happen? Are we going to cease to exist?’” said Father Kumarthusseril, who has shepherded the process since 2008. “Those fears were removed from the people. Both worship sites remain under one administration, one staff, which we have already realized over the past years.”

He also points out that “St. Philip Neri was the mother church, giving birth to St. Albert the Great.” St. Philip Neri was founded in 1925; when St. Albert the Great was founded in 1976, it was carved from the larger parish. The churches, which are about two miles apart, are among four on the island, including St. Joseph Basilica and St. Barnabas Church.

The need for a merger comes as no surprise to Peter McNamara, a parishioner at St. Philip Neri for the past 20 years.

A member of the finance committee, he took part in a deanery planning board that about five years ago looked at the viability of each parish in the Alameda deanery. The closure of Alameda Naval Air Station and declining participation in churches made the case for change. “It was universal,” he said.

Various models were considered: One parish? One parish with multiple worship sites?

“It seemed most appropriate to see if we could take a couple of parishes and save some administrative costs,” he recalled.

He is not a stranger to change. He said that in his Massachusetts hometown, out of “seven or eight parishes in the city, they’ve closed three or four of those churches.”

What’s making the difference in the current merger he said, is participation.

“Parishioners were involved,” he said. “They were involved all along the way.”

Along that way, they have discovered some things that work well and others that don’t.

Youth ministry, for example, was once deanery-wide and has now been brought back to the St Philip Neri and St. Albert. McNamara credits Father Kumarthusseril. “Father Joy said we should see our youth participating in the sacramental ministry of the church.”

McNamara said he sees among the parish’s greatest strengths its pastor and his associate, Father Jojo Puthussery, of the Missionaries of Faith.

“Father Joy and Father Jojo are two very spiritual men concerned about the spiritual well-being of the community. Both of these men are well-respected and both communities see them as truly spiritual leaders of our parish.”

He sees other strengths as well: a vibrant Filipino community at St. Albert’s, as well as a strong adult faith formation program that welcomes four to seven people into the Church each Easter. This speaks well for the parish he said, in that people feel that the parish nurtures their faith journeys
“Father Joy has done a very good job of incorporating parish life at St. Albert’s into the way we do things at St. Philip Neri. And vice versa,” McNamara said. “I think it’s going to work out very, very well.”

Michele Harrison, who has served on the pastoral council of St. Philip Neri, expressed similar sentiments. “We’ve been basically functioning as one parish for about a year,” she said. “The pastoral councils and finance committees have been separate.”

She also noted that funds designated for specific sites in past capital campaigns will remain separate.
Changes in Mass times in the past year provided some challenges, she said, but the workshops and continuing education that has gone on over the past four years have smoothed the path toward merger.
“We are one parish,” she said, and it has been the pastoral councils’ role to discover “how can we make that work easily and seamlessly.”

Lea Murphy, a member of the stewardship committee who has been a parishioner at St. Albert the Great for a dozen years, says the combined stewardship committee is working on a questionnaire for parishioners, asking how they feel about services, which, she said, has already led to more outreach.
She notes that St. Philip Neri is a larger church, almost twice the size of St. Albert, and has a school. She describes St. Albert as a “close-knit congregation,” and described some of the elements that make it unique. Among them is a healing Mass celebrated the first Friday of the month, with refreshments served afterward.

St. Albert parish also provides Thanks-giving and Christmas dinner for shut-ins. “We ask the drivers to spend a little time with them,” she said of the stewardship activity.

Because the smaller parish did not have a school, many of its youngsters attended school at St. Philip Neri. “They have a school, we try to support their Fun Fair,” she said of the school’s annual fundraising activity.

She described the stewardship committee as “a wonderful group to work with.”

“We want to do what’s best for our church,” she said.

Commenting on the several years of preparation efforts on the part of the Diocesan Planning Board and of leadership within the parish to include a gradual merger of ministries and programs, Father George Mockel, vicar general of the Diocese of Oakland, said one of his goals for the merger has been: “The Sunday after the legal merger, people in the pews would not see or experience anything different than the Sunday before the merger.”

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