St. Bernadine Church (File photo)

After losing their 98-year-old school and with Mass attendance eroding and weekly contributions running at a deficit, Forest Park’s St. Bernardine Catholic church has taken a long look in the mirror. The church is working with the Archdiocese of Chicago in a 12-week process called Parish Transformation. The process sets goals based on an honest and participatory evaluation of each congregation’s strengths and weaknesses.

“Fifty people showed up on the first night and an average of 30 to 35 people came consistently after that,” said Susan Rhode, a member of St. Bernardine parish since 1999. “For such a small parish we were very happy with the numbers.”

An Archdiocese of Chicago website states, “The Parish Transformation initiative is intended to renew the sense of mission at parishes and to ensure that parishes are financially stable.” It even sets a measureable goal of improving “the total Archdiocesan October count in each parish by 20 percent by 2016.”

Many had been members for over 50 years, Rhode said. They had gone to the school and sent their kids to the school. 

“People talked so sincerely about how St. Bernardine’s was their parish. People described it as their family,” Rhode said.

In many ways, the transformation process could be compared to the birth of a child. The goal is a joyful creation, even a miracle, while the process of birthing is often difficult and painful. It’s not called “labor” for nothing.

Indeed, the process came at a time when private conversations among St. B’s members indicated the parish had problems. Many still were grieving the closing of their school, a significant number of members were attending Mass at other churches or had dropped out of church completely, and many in the parish were unhappy with the leadership style of their pastor, Fr. George Velloorattil.

Two facilitators from the archdiocese helped parishioners honestly and openly confront perceived negatives in their church and tried to free them to imagine new possibilities and then implement new, positive initiatives.

Rohde talked about how difficult and even painful the “birthing” process was at times. She said, “I think we moved through the continuum of being nicey nice to nasty and blaming a couple times through the twelve weeks. The facilitators were magnificent at keeping us on task and staying away from negativity.”

Susan’s husband James added, “We have faced many challenges lately. There was a lot of hurt. There was a lot of legitimate pain that people went through as we talked about memories of what we had walked through as a community. Yes, emotions were raw.”

Particularly draining was the session in which 30 participants openly verbalized their criticisms of their pastor. Susan said, “To Fr. George’s credit, he gave us the opportunity to just speak some of our criticisms. That was probably the most moving session, because he put himself out there. I give him a lot of credit for that, because people had a lot of strong feelings. I admire his courage– kind of saying, ‘OK have at me.’ He gave people a chance to get their frustrations out and then move on.”

Velloorattil was not intimidated by the experience, he said.

“I explained the role of the pastor and how he is appointed by the archbishop to administer the place and be of help to the people,” he said.

“We got a chance to realize that our priests are basically people like us, and they have the same thoughts and frustrations as us laymen,” said James Rhode. “The feeling I had was that there had been a movement of the Spirit at the meeting,” he added.

One weakness identified by the parish was a lack of communication. For example, one participant in the sessions expressed a desire for a Bible study for adults and was surprised to hear that one already existed. Stauffer said that the parish staff had stopped meeting regularly and that it felt like groups in the church were operating independently of each other.

Another challenge the identified by survey was catechesis. 

Fr. George shared that concern, saying, “How do we catechize the dormant Catholics so they become alive? How do we give them enthusiasm and passion? A trend in the United States is that once a young person is confirmed don’t see them anymore.” 

The transformation process followed up with an action plan.

Improved catechesis fell squarely on the shoulders of the Director of Religious Education Anne Stauffer, who has worked at St. Bernardine for 26 years.

 “We always say that parents are the primary religious educators of their children,” Stauffer began. “The challenge is to engage the parents as well as the children. One of the goals of this process is to have opportunities for parents to grow their faith along with the children.”

The parish planned two sessions for adults on prayer and alms giving. 

“We gave parents opportunities for their families to make contributions to parts of the underdeveloped world, and had a presenter talk about how his area had already benefited from the aid they had received,” Stauffer said.

Some simple changes like the installation of a suggestion box in the back of the sanctuary have already been done. The Sunday bulleting now includes a more complete weekly calendar. The liturgy committee is meeting regularly again. 

“St. Bernardine Day is coming up on June 7,” said Fr. George. “That is another way of bringing all our people together. I sent out a personal invitation to over 500 families. It’s on Saturday, June 7, in the parking lot. There will be free food and music. It’s a way of bringing about that kind of camaraderie friendship.”

The liturgy committee in particular has implemented changes:

“We have a youth Mass once a month,” he said, “and a family Mass with children running the whole thing. When children are present, parents will definitely come. It’s a way of attracting parents,” Stauffer said.

Stauffer sees Parish Transformation as a reorienting of St. Bernardine rather than just making small changes. 

“People need to have ownership,” she said. “The decisions cannot come in the old form and model of church, i.e. top down. We live in a post Vatican II church. What I mean is that decisions are made collaboratively.”

Financial improvement goals

One of the goals of Parish Transformation is to improve the financial stability of the parish. According to a brochure, the parish has the following goals:

  •  Assure long-term financial viability of St. Bernardine’s Parish,
  •  Focus on goal-setting, communication and transparency,
  •  Engage and educate parishioners.

School may be rented next fall

Fr. George also talked about plans for the new empty parish school building. “We have a couple of educational agencies which are looking at our school,” he said.

 “There are private schools that want to relocate. We haven’t had a definite answer but are discussing the possibility of one of them starting this fall.”