Vibrancy keeps parishes strong through priest transitions
By Laura Melius
As we travel together on our journey of faith, we can be sure of one thing: our parishes will experience changes, both large and small.
Often the most difficult change is felt when a priest has been reassigned to another parish. When a parish and priest have formed a close relationship, the transition can be especially difficult. However, it’s important to remember that the vibrant faith community that has been formed at a parish can be maintained despite a change in leadership, as St. Joseph Parish in Turton, currently under the leadership of Father Gregory Tschakert, has shown through more than 100 years as a community of faith.
“We have been blessed through the years to have some of the finest priests in South Dakota,” Jim Becker, parishioner at St. Joseph, said. “They all have taught the parish how to take care of our church and people to step up and take care of what has to be done. Our town is small, and the church is the main thing in the community.”
Fellow parishioner Katie Oliver agrees and has appreciated Father Tschakert’s guidance and leadership in his time as their pastor. “Our priest, Father Tschakert, shows us the way, the truth and the light by spreading the Good News to everyone we meet, not just through Mass, but also by being a part of the community,” she added.
Through the leadership of not only Father Tschakert but also each priest who has served the parish, St. Joseph’s has consistently maintained this outreach into the community.
“St. Joseph’s has become an important hub for the surrounding rural communities,” Katie said, adding that the closing of three surrounding parishes have added to this outreach. “The road hasn’t been easy with twists and turns along the way dealing with constant change. The people of the parish are what make it rock solid by standing in their faith. The people of these parish Catholic communities need to be strong advocates and participants and exercise their voices to keep communities alive and prosperous.”
Built over generations
Within the parish, Katie shared that St. Joseph’s has built a strong faith community through their potlucks, altar society, CCD, CCD Christmas program and Christmas choir.
“Part of what keeps St. Joseph’s vibrant is that our parish is built on generations of families who have made the church a pillar of their community,” Katie said. “That foundation enables us to instill the duty and responsibility of faith within our youth through CCD, Confirmation and various church activities. Father Tschakert and our parish members are united through fellowship every Sunday, as well as outside of the church. That unification makes us stronger by keeping faith as part of our community and our parish leaders visible, involved and invested.”
One annual celebration, St. John’s Day, celebrated the last weekend in June, has been an especially important part of the parish’s tradition, maintaining connection not only with present and past parishioners, but also with Turton and surrounding communities.
“For well over 100 years, we have had St. John’s Day with a great meal. With games and a lot of fun, people from far away even plan their vacations around it,” Jim said. In fact, one of their first priests is credited with starting the celebration. “The story goes, we had a priest out of Canada where they always celebrated that day,” he added.
This strong foundation of both faith and community involvement has helped guide St. Joseph Parish through changes in leadership through priest reassignments.
Father Tschakert, whose experience as a priest spans 40 years in our diocese, recognizes that each parish is different and will weather the transition differently.
“Some parishes are more self-sufficient than others,” he explained. “Some have generous volunteers to oversee the faith formation of children and young people, who lead the activities of the altar societies, and who assure the cemeteries and properties are well maintained. Parishes that regularly do charitable works are also more vibrant. Social activities help people bond together as a parish family.”
He recognizes faith formation for all parishioners as a main component of a thriving parish. “Parishes that have faith formation opportunities for children, young people and adults will be more vibrant than those who don’t,” Father Tschakert said. “Faith formation helps people grow in wisdom and grace, even as they grow in age. It is necessary for any parish to thrive.”
Father Tschakert mentioned that some parishes he has served have had active Rosary groups or Light of the World study groups that met in homes as well to help build community within the parish.
Welcome and support
When the parish has undergone these transitions, St. Joseph’s parishioners have done their best to offer support to both the outgoing and incoming priests. “It is a very hard thing, but we help with moving and have a big party to say goodbye,” Jim said. Jim’s family also maintains connections with their former priests through cards and phone calls.
Father Tschakert offers some insight as one who has been the new priest several times in his ministry.
“It is important to remember that it takes a while for the priest to become the pastor when he moves to a new parish. There is a period of months when the priest and the parishioners are getting to know each other,” he explained. “He gradually feels at home, and they gradually learn to trust him as their spiritual guide.”
A bit of orientation can be helpful as well. “Someone should give the priest some orientation about local customs and who is responsible for particular duties,” Father Tschakert added. “As Catholics, we find much commonality across all parishes, but there are also local traditions that vary from place to place.”
“When the new priest comes in, it is a learning curve for both the priest and the parish,” Jim recognized. “It has to be very hard on him if we have our minds set the way we have done things forever, and now he may want us to do it another way.”
Father Tschakert agrees. “There will always be some changes in a parish when a new pastor arrives and as he gets oriented. Parish staff members and councils should expect to dialogue with a new pastor about these changes with mutual openness.”
Katie added that an open mind can go far in welcoming a new priest.
“We don’t have a protocol for onboarding a new priest, but we try to keep an open mind and stay positive,” she said. Oliver encourages others to stay active, participate in the parish and make an effort to help the priest feel welcome.
“Parishes need consistency through leadership to keep that foundation strong and sustain the involvement of future generations.”