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Future Of Woods Hole Parish Unclear

Posted in: Falmouth News, Top Stories
May 9, 2008 - 1:25:44 PM

     More than a year after members of St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole were informed that the closing of the parish was imminent, the church is still going strong, 126 years after it was founded in 1882.
     What the future holds for the tiny parish, however, is still unclear.
     John E. Kearns Jr., spokesman for Bishop George W. Coleman of the Fall River diocese, said no decision has been made regarding what might happen to the church once its priest, Father Joseph H. Mauritzen retires.
     It was Father Mauritzen who announced last year at a mass in March that Bishop Coleman told him the church would be closing. The news meant that the $1.1 million the church received from a civil suit for embezzlement against its former priest, the Reverend Bernard R. Kelly, could not be used, as planned, to renovate the historic structure.
     In a subsequent church bulletin, Father Mauritzen wrote, that when the church closes, the parish would merge with St. Patrick’s Church in  Falmouth and the money would go to them at that time.
     While there has been consideration given to the church’s future, Mr. Kearns said, no decision has been formalized. Such a decision, he said, would be brought to the forefront when Father Mauritzen eventually announces his retirement.
     Canon law, he said, requires that Catholic priests submit their letter of intent to retire at the age of 75. Under those guidelines, it would mean roughly another five years before Father Mauritzen makes such an announcement. “Generally, it is announced in a timely fashion, so there is opportunity for discussion,” Mr. Kearns said.
     If the decision were made to not assign a priest at St. Joseph, it would not necessarily mean closure, Mr. Kearns said. “The parish could become a mission of another church,” he said, meaning it could remain in use either seasonally or all year long, depending on the circumstances.
     At least one longtime parishioner, Carolyn W. Rooney of Dusty Miller Road, Sippewissett, hopes it will never come to that. She and her husband, George D. Rooney, have been active members of St. Joseph’s for 30  years.
     She highlighted a number of unique features of the church, including the fact that they have perpetual adoration, meaning that the adoration of Jesus Christ, in the form of the blessed sacrament displayed in a church vessel known as a monstrance, is done virtually every day by its members.
     Ms. Rooney participates in the ritual one hour every Monday. “Even though we are very small, it is a very special thing to have perpetual adoration,” she said. “Many churches like St. Patrick’s have it one day a month.”
     The church, she said, is also special because of its members, many of whom are quite philanthropic. Last year, she said, its members donated more than $160,000 to Catholic charities, a program in which money is given to the Fall River Diocese and then returned to the needy throughout Cape Cod, New Bedford, and Fall River.
     “It is a very special church,” she said. “I go to churches all over the world; with just 18 pews, it is very beautiful...I certainly hope it will not close. I hope it will stay here for a long time.”
     That St. Joseph Church will close, however, remains a real possibility and would add to the trials and tribulations the Woods Hole parish has faced in recent years.
     The church is still recovering from the scandal surrounding Father Kelly, who was assigned to the church in 1997 and was dismissed six years later, following the police investigation into the murder of a young Falmouth man, Jonathan Wessner. Father Kelly had ties to Paul R. Nolin Jr., who was convicted in the murder case.
     Father Kelly’s embezzling, not only from St. Joseph, but also from his previous parish, Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Wellfleet, was discovered shortly after his dismissal.
     While the circumstances of St. Joseph’s recent history are unique, its potential fate may not be so unusual. Anne V. Hart of Bedford Street, Maravista, a member of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth, said the closing of Catholic churches throughout the country has become commonplace.
     It is the result, she said, of a shortage of priests in their religion. “The numbers have been dwindling for many many years,” she said.
     Next Wednesday, the Voice of the Faithful, for which Ms. Hart is a member, will be hosting Sister Mary Mazza of Athens, New York, to speak about this problem.
     Two parishes in Sister Mazza’s area of the state, Ms. Hart said, were slated to close because the bishop had no priest or pastor to serve on a full-time basis.
     Utilizing Sister Mazza, a parish life director, as well as a priest who comes during weekends to say mass, the parishes have not only been able to survive, but thrive, Ms. Hart said.
     The use of parish life directors like Sister Mazza, Ms. Hart said, is one strategy used in both the West and Midwest, where the shortages of priests have been more widespread than in places like the Northeast.
     A parish life director does everything a priest does, except they cannot say mass or consecrate the Eucharist because they are not ordained, Ms. Hart said. The director will be in charge of the parish during the week, while a visiting priest will preside over mass during weekends.
     It is a concept that has been used in rural areas, she said, and may one day take hold in New England. “People are not really familiar with it around here,” she said. “That is why we are having her come, because we think [the idea] may be coming and we are just trying to educate ourselves.”