By Patricia Zapor
GREENWOOD (CNS) – Franciscan Father Gregory Plata is the key to one example of how Catholic parishes are dealing with the decline in the number of priests.
He’s pastor of two small, geographically close, but vastly dissimilar parishes in Greenwood. Three missions and a struggling school also are his responsibility. Combined they serve 2,385 square miles of the Mississippi Delta, where Catholics have always been few and scattered.
As part of a look at how different types of parishes handle contemporary challenges, Catholic News Service reporters visited churches around the United States over the past few years. This package of stories, American Parish, presents a glance at some of the kinds of communities that Pope Francis might see if he had the time to visit a variety of parishes on his visit to the United States.
Workloads like Father Plata’s, with responsibilities for multiple parishes and missions, are one way U.S. dioceses have adapted to deal with a 35 percent decline in the number of priests since 1965.
Fifty years ago, the nation’s 17,637 parishes and 49 million Catholics were served by 58,632 priests. Today, nearly the same number of parishes – 17,458 – accommodate 31 million more Catholics, with 38,275 priests.
Until last summer when some Redemptorist missionaries came to do Hispanic outreach in the Greenwood area, it was just Father Plata and a retired priest covering the four weekend and five weekday Masses, and all pastoral needs for hospital and home visits and sacraments at two parishes and three missions scattered across Leflore County.
Three miles across town at Immaculate Heart of Mary, the older of the two churches in Greenwood where Father Plata also is pastor, a paid staff of three manages day-to-day functions. That includes a joint religious education program for both parishes. About 300 families are in Immaculate Heart Parish and 200 at St. Francis.
Volunteers in the two parishes and the missions make nearly everything else possible.
At St. Francis School, thin resources mean the teachers are mostly retired public school employees, who can only afford to work there because they have pensions to supplement their low pay, acknowledged the principal, Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Tupy.
As when the Franciscans opened the St. Francis Mission – first a school and then the church – as an outreach to impoverished African-Americans at the height of civil rights tensions, the order’s missionary commitment continues. Besides Father Plata and Sister Mary Ann, Franciscan Brother Craig Wilking, development director, finds the school grants and other forms of financial support. A retired military chaplain, Franciscan Father Adam Szufel, is in residence at St. Francis, celebrating Mass and helping ensure the mission churches get regular visits from a priest.
In the past year, the Redemptorists established a presence in the county, primarily to serve the growing population of Hispanic immigrants. One has been living at St. Francis and joining Father Plata and Father Szufel in pastoral services.
The ongoing commitment of the Franciscans to Greenwood was further stretched a few years ago, when Father Plata was asked to also serve as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary because of a shortage of priests in the Diocese of Jackson.
The two parishes traditionally have been home to distinct communities. Although the days have passed when blacks were pointedly told they were unwelcome at Immaculate Heart, few African-Americans worship there regularly.
On the other hand, the formerly all-black congregation of St. Francis includes a handful of white regulars, who either find the Mass schedule suits them better or, as several said, they appreciate the more multicultural community and lively liturgies. St. Francis’ growth in the last decade has come largely from Hispanics, leading Father Plata to schedule a weekly Spanish Mass, which is generally better attended than the English one.
Marc Biggers, a lifelong Immaculate Heart parishioner, said that since his childhood the black and white communities of Greenwood have come a long way toward being comfortable with each other.
“The last 10 to 15 years we’ve really mingled a lot better,” he said. Sharing a pastor has helped. “At first the transition to having a Franciscan was kind of awkward,” he said. “But I think it’s working.”
Katherine Fisher a parishioner at St. Francis, said she does not go to Immaculate Heart for Mass primarily because she has so many obligations at St. Francis. But she and other African-Americans expressed some lingering discomfort with their Catholic counterparts across town, largely dating to the racial tensions of decades ago.
A cracked blue window pane above the front door at St. Francis has intentionally been left unrepaired since someone shot a gun at the church in the 1960s, a pointed reminder of the struggles faced by the Franciscans and the parishioners.
Father Plata described the sentiments within the two parishes toward each other as “not exactly a division, but more that people are more comfortable in their own cultures.”
Immaculate Heart parishioner Dave Becker is among those who recognized that while the two churches have quite different cultures, they will need more and more consolidation if the Catholic presence in Greenwood is to survive.
By Patricia Zapor