Three parishes look toward a common future by listening

“Holy God … it is our privilege and our responsibility to support, foster, love and grow our parishes … Give us the wisdom to discern what is right and good and just … - from “One Catholic Family” prayer written by Karen Yankauskas

WINFIELD – There is an art to being a good listener, as parishioners at Holy Spirit in Winfield, St. Helen in Hebron and St. Mary in Kouts are finding out as they start painting a future together in the Porter Deanery of the Diocese of Gary.

“Three Parishes, One Faith” was the theme of this month’s listening sessions hosted by each parish on their way to becoming “One Catholic Family” that shares a single pastor/administrator, a complementary Mass schedule and the resources to serve their faith community.

Following the death of St. Mary pastor Father Thomas T. Tibbs in 2020 and St. Helen associate pastor Father Frank Torres last fall, Father Thomas Mischler has been serving all three parishes and working to unite them.

“We want to hear your concerns and ideas for our future,” he encouraged parishioners at each session, which featured small group discussions, time for sharing ideas with the entire gathering, and fellowship.

Each of the sessions attracted several dozen parishioners, some in leadership roles, who began by voicing what they appreciate most about their parish.

Attendees at the St. Mary session most appreciate the one-on-one interaction, generational families and very active congregation they have at their older parish of 125 families, said Deacon Jim Knopf, who took notes at all three listening sessions.

“Their major concern, also a concern expressed at St. Helen, is keeping their parish open, due to the lack of priests in the diocese,” Deacon Knopf said. “Even though we are clustered together, they want a future as individual parishes that comes together as one Catholic family and can share resources.”

Karen Yankauskas, director of religious education and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program at St. Helen, noted “a good turnout” of about 45 people at the Hebron session. “Most see St. Helen as a welcoming community for visitors and new people, where they feel like a family. We have seen a lot of cross Mass attendance from the other parishes, which is encouraging,” she said. “People are coming to the Mass that is convenient for them.”

Beginning in January, the shared Mass schedule was adjusted to ensure that Father Mischler can celebrate all four weekend Masses, including a 4 p.m. Saturday liturgy at St. Mary,  6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday Masses at Holy Spirit, and a 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Helen.

Parishioners at all listening sessions were given the chance to make suggestions for any changes they would like to see in that schedule, keeping in mind that there needs to be two hours between Masses and priests are normally limited to saying four Masses in a weekend.

“We are blessed to have Father Ian Williams in residence at St. Helen right now and helping me with liturgies, but he is still receiving medical treatment for cancer and we cannot depend on him feeling well enough to celebrate Mass every week,” Father Mischler noted.

Yankauskas said St. Helen parishioners suggested announcements about parish activities and events be shared at all Masses, as well as in bulletins and Flocknotes. A Holy Spirit representative gave a personal invitation to St. Helen parishioners for a men’s club meeting and garnered a good response,” she said. “We (three parishes) should try not to plan things on the same day; Fr. Ian suggested we move our Lenten Stations of the Cross to Wednesdays to avoid conflicts with fish frys, and they are pretty well attended.”

While St. Helen parishioners, 250 families strong, naturally responded to a question about loss resulting from parish changes with their grief about Father Frank’s sudden death, some also lamented the loss of a Saturday Mass, suggesting maybe a Mass could be livestreamed to their church with Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion on hand to distribute the sacrament on Saturdays.

At Holy Spirit, where registered families number 575, parishioners see as strengths the welcoming atmosphere and friendliness of the congregation, the food pantry operated three days a week by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Generations of Faith religious education program.

Their concerns centered around the added duties of their pastor that reduces the amount of time he has available in the parish and the need for more activities for all ages, especially young people. “We need to pray for vocations,” said Linda Pappas. “Sometimes I feel like a Catholic orphan because we have to share Father Tom.”

Father Mischler said Catholics need to be more deliberate in reaching out to young people about religious vocations, while “attitudes need to change so families see that giving a son to the priesthood is a gift.”

“I would like to see more young people in church, and maybe we’d have more priests,” said Johnny Bobos.

Deacon Tim Maicher expressed the need to bring back more ministries that were paused during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to serve the needs of more of the faithful.

“We need more combined activities among the parishes so we can get to know each other better,” said Becky Krampen, Holy Spirit music director. It was suggested that the three parishes work together on at least one large fundraiser each year.

Mitchell Bolda praised the plan to host a single Holy Thursday service at Holy Spirit this Lent, with a combined Easter Vigil service at St. Helen. “We have a great opportunity to interact with each other and support one another,” he said.

“We have to remember why we come through those doors, no matter what time it is,” added Krampen. “We are fortunate to have a parish.”