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St. Bernardine parish in Forest Park and St. Luke parish in River Forest, grouped together to be merged by the Archdiocese of Chicago, have written an official, joint recommendation on how they would like to proceed.

Their choice is to be joined as one parish under a single staff and pastor but to continue to hold mass and social activities within the two separate churches.

The recommendation was one of two choices offered by the archdiocese. The other was to combine the parishes in one location, St. Luke’s church in River Forest. St. Bernardine church would then be closed.

The letter will be submitted to the Renew My Church Standards and Recommendations Commission of the Archdiocese of Chicago on Feb. 8. A final decision on how the two churches will be combined will be made by Cardinal Blase Cupich and announced in March.

“We recommend the creation of a single parish with two worship sites, i.e. St. Luke Church and St. Bernardine Church would continue to provide the liturgies that are critical to the retention of our parishioners,” reads the letter from the St. Luke-St. Bernardine Grouping. “We understand that there will be a single staff team to manage the critical activities of the parish. We believe that approval of our recommendation will enable us to retain the membership of a diverse assembly that, over time, has the potential to unify, learn from each other and build on one another’s strengths.”

The letter to the archdiocese stresses that the new combined parish, with two separate physical churches, should “build on the strengths of the past and present.” The separate churches represent “two decidedly different communities, each with strengths that should not be forfeited in the merger since they hold the roots of our faith.”

Both churches, it was pointed out, have a robust offering of social activities and ministries that have built relationships among parishioners for years and served those in need.

Concerns raised in the recommendation letter included demographic differences, risk of failure to unite as a parish, potential loss of parishioners (especially for St. Bernardine church),  and integration support from leadership.

The letter points to recent census data that indicates River Forest residents are more likely than Forest Park residents to be college educated. River Forest residents also tend to have higher household incomes and the village has a higher median home value.

“These socioeconomic differences impact the ways the parishioners socialize and raise funds for parish needs,” states the letter. “Concern has been expressed that because of these socioeconomic differences, parishioners from St. Bernardine will not feel welcomed at St. Luke. On the other hand, St. Luke parishioners may not feel welcomed at St. Bernardine. This is a critical matter that cannot be left to chance and requires leadership from both communities to establish trust and confidence in each other.”

In merging the parishes under either scenario, but especially if St. Bernardine’s physical church is no longer used for worship, there is the fear that St. Bernardine parishioners will go elsewhere. Oak Park residents who are parishioners at St. Bernardine, for example, might decide to attend mass in that village rather than go to River Forest.

“Under either of the scenarios which we were asked to consider, St. Bernardine’s identity as an independent parish will change, and if it also loses it its worship site, there is grave concern that it will lose some parishioners,” reads the letter. “St. Bernardine already experienced the closure of its school in June 2013, a loss over which some parishioners continue to grieve.”

Support in integrating the two parishes will be needed, and strong leadership will be essential, the group stated.

The letter makes it clear, however, that both parishes wish to keep both churches open.

“Forcing these two distinctive parishes to abandon one of the worship sites brings with it the specter of disaffiliation by some, which would work against achievement of the three mission imperatives of Renew My Church.”

St. Bernardine Renew My Church committee members include Rev. Stanislaw Kuca (pastor), Michael O’Brien, Della DeSonia, Julia Doloszycki, Deb Michalak and Mary Richie. St. Luke members include Rev. John Szmyd (pastor), Rev. Ed Fialkowski (associate pastor), Julie Bauer, Joe Bobek, Sarina Butler, Benjamin Keith, and Andrew DiMarco, principal of St. Luke School.