Back in the 1950s, a bumper sticker started popping up on cars: “YOU are welcome at Holy Name.”
Over the years, that message has been important at Holy Name Catholic Church, and it's about to be even more so as the diverse parish welcomes the Hispanic community from St. Therese of the Child Jesus in part of a merger plan.
The move will take effect this summer and is the first under the Omaha Archdiocese plan announced last year. It calls for the largest series of parish mergers in the history of the archdiocese, said its spokesman, Deacon Tim McNeil.
Under the plan, 34 parishes east of 72nd Street will become 26 parishes by the end of the year. The school portion of the plan calls for closing three schools this year and placing five in a regional consortium with a common governing board and director.
The archdiocese has merged or closed parishes from time to time in the past. With this broader effort, the archdiocese says, it recognizes and is attempting to deal strategically with long-term demographic shifts in Omaha, along with a shortage of priests and tight finances at some parishes.
Similar factors are driving parish mergers and other restructuring nationally in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, as well as rural areas, and the pace is increasing, said the Rev. Thomas Sweetser, who runs the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project, a nonprofit organization. “It's a necessity,'' he said. “There just aren't enough priests.”
The number of priest ordinations has declined in the Omaha Archdiocese over the past two decades, and it has not kept pace with retirements, McNeil said.
Nationally, the number of Catholic parishes dropped to about 17,800 in 2010, a decrease of 7 percent from a decade earlier, according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
St. Therese, near 16th and Fort Streets in north Omaha, has become a predominately Hispanic parish. It started drawing Hispanic members from South Omaha and other parts of the city about 10 years ago when a Latino priest took over as pastor.
McNeil said the archdiocese is closing St. Therese in part because of dwindling membership and tight finances, and is merging it with Sacred Heart Church. Holy Name, near 45th and Maple Streets, will serve Hispanics from St. Therese. Other St. Therese members can attend Sacred Heart or any parish they choose, McNeil said.
St. Therese's Hispanic members can choose to attend another parish instead, but Holy Name will have a special ministry for them, he said.
Of St. Therese's roughly 350 members, about 300 are Latino, according to the archdiocese.
McNeil said the archdiocese asked Holy Name to accept the Hispanic members because Holy Name already is diverse, and has a reputation for integrating Catholics from other nations.
With help from a consultant, the archdiocese learned what steps have led to successful mergers in other communities across the country. It's essential, McNeil said, for the congregation that's losing its church to be formally welcomed and then integrated into the new parish.
Holy Name has taken the right steps, such as working with St. Therese to plan a special procession and bilingual Mass for Sunday at Holy Name to welcome the new members, he said.
Holy Name also has brought on a bilingual priest, the Rev. Mike McAndrew, to help lead the Hispanic ministry there. He is a Redemptorist priest who grew up in the parish and returned to Omaha after working 22 years in Hispanic ministry in California and elsewhere. He came to Holy Name as associate pastor this month.
McAndrew will hear confessions in Spanish, and will help Hispanic members with baptisms and other sacraments, and provide them Catholic leadership training.
Holy Name will add a noon Mass on Sundays said mostly in Spanish, although parts will be in English. The existing 10:30 a.m. Mass in English now will have some Spanish. The bilingual approach is aimed at drawing Hispanics, as well as other parishioners, to both Masses, said Colleen Peterson, development director for Holy Name School.
The parish will hold a ministry fair this summer where the new Hispanic members, along with other parishioners, can learn how they can become involved.
Peterson said Holy Name wants its new Hispanic members to become lectors, Eucharistic ministers, members of the parish council and volunteers at the Lenten fish fry and other events.
The new members will help keep Holy Name vibrant, and also could provide students for the grade school, she said. The school had been at risk of closing, but a local nonprofit organization last year pledged support to keep it open.
Holy Name opened in 1917, and from its earliest days drew a range of nationalities. While some Omaha churches started out serving a single ethnic group such as German or Irish, Holy Name attracted a mix of white European immigrants, Peterson said.
The parish still draws a mix, but it is much broader.
About 40 percent of Holy Name's current membership is white, and the remainder includes first- and second-generation immigrants representing 15 different nationalities such as Sudanese, Nigerian and Asian, Peterson said. Holy Name also has existing Hispanic members. Holy Name School is equally diverse.
St. Therese was founded in 1918, and the current church was built in 1927, serving primarily immigrants from Hungary.
Rita Werner, a longtime member, said that when she joined the parish in the 1950s it was also serving Germans, Poles and others. The parish operated a school until 1973, when it was closed because of falling enrollment. Werner said she is sad to see the parish close, but understands why it's happening.
Felix Cortes and his family joined St. Therese in 2004. Cortes, who lives near 42nd and Center Streets, helped plan the merger and believes Holy Name will be a good fit for himself and other Hispanics.
He said Holy Name has taken big steps, such adding the bilingual priest, as well as smaller but equally important ones. For example, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that's stood at a side altar at St. Therese will be moved to Holy Name.
“It's going to be a good church,'' he said.
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