Our Lady of the Mountains Parish, which was formed by the merger of five parishes eight years ago, has received permission from Archbishop William E. Lori to close one of its churches and lease another to an independent group.
St. Ambrose in Cresaptown will close and the property will be sold. St. Patrick in Mount Savage will be leased to a new nonprofit organization, the Friends of St. Patrick Mount Savage Inc., which will care for the church and provide two Masses per year with visiting clergy.
The parish will continue to provide daily and weekly Masses at St. Mary and St. Patrick in Cumberland, and will continue its oversight of the archdiocesan Shrine of Ss. Peter and Paul in Cumberland, where Masses are celebrated each weekday, but not on Sundays.
Capuchin Franciscan Father Gregory Chervenak, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains, said that then-Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien desired for all the churches to remain open when the parishes merged in September 2011.
“We tried as best we could for many years. But we went about $500,000 in debt and we’re just now meeting our cash flow,” he said.
Making missionary disciples
Over the years, although the parish cut expenses and reduced professional staff members, the parish was spending 46 cents of every dollar on “brick and mortar” concerns – facility maintenance, utility bills, etc. With diligence, facilities expenses are now down to 35 percent of the budget, but that is still double the archdiocesan recommendation.
The parish could not thrive, and was barely surviving, parish leaders said. Having five churches was not helping the parish make missionary disciples of Christ.
Edward Jones, business manager and coordinator of mission support for the parish, said missionary discipleship is the driving force behind the changes. “In order to achieve our missionary discipleship goals or have a chance of achieving them, we have to right-size our infrastructure,” he said. “We have to balance our budget and we have to free up our staff and clergy to do the work that is needed to be done.”
Father Chervenak acknowledged there will be mixed emotions from parishioners.
“There will be some who will be very sad at losing their place of worship that meant so much to them in their personal history, their family history,” he said.
Others – especially the majority who now worship at St. Mary or St. Patrick in Cumberland – won’t be sacrificing as much, Father Chervenak said, but those who regularly attend Mass at the shrine or the churches in Mount Savage or Cresaptown may be irked or hurt by the closures.
Teresa Files, executive assistant and coordinator of mission at Our Lady of the Mountains, said there will be a time of grieving. “Change is not always something we welcome. But most of the time, with change comes opportunity,” she said.
“I think that there’s going to be a lot of opportunity opened up for the parish that we haven’t had in a very long time,” she said, noting that in the past, the parish had a music director, a music minister and a youth minister. When those positions became vacant, the parish did not have the funding to replace them.
She said that spending less on facilities will allow the parish to provide the personnel and programs that parishioners need – especially young families. “They’re just waiting with bated breath to see the new programs.”
Father Chervenak said, “We do want to honor and respect the past and all the people and their association with their past, the spiritual life of their family, their history. However, missionary discipleship calls us to look to the future, to those who are disenfranchised from the church, to those who never had a relationship with Jesus. We want to be reaching out toward our future.”
He said the plans for the Shrine of Ss. Peter and Paul include weekday Masses, the sacrament of reconciliation and holy hours for men and women. The shrine will be available for weddings and funerals as well as private meditation and contemplation.
Founded by a saint
Ss. Peter and Paul was founded in 1848 by Redemptorist Bishop John Neumann (who later became America’s first male saint). In the 1850s, it was served by Father Francis Xavier Seelos, a missionary priest who was beatified in 2000. Father Chervenak said the shrine will offer tours about the history of Catholicism in Mountain Maryland.
“We hope in the future to have some sacred music concerts there and some lectures on Blessed Seelos and St. Neumann. We want to continue to promote it as a place of spirituality for all of Western Maryland,” he said.
Ss. Peter and Paul was originally proposed for closure when the parish leadership presented its ideas for discussion among the parishioners this summer. Many of those who attended an information session at the shrine were clear in their hope that the shrine could remain open.
Deacon Christopher Yeung, the archbishop’s delegate for the Western Vicariate, said, “After receiving significant feedback about the shrine closure, Archbishop Lori discussed with Father Chervenak the possibility of keeping it open. The archbishop and Father Greg agreed to keep the shrine open with the financial and practical support of the Friends of the Shrine.”
Archbishop Lori noted that the plan has adapted over time, including input from parishioners. “The point to having listening sessions is not that you can do everything that everyone wants and it’s not a way of avoiding difficult decisions, but it has an effect. It does help shape the plan.”
Joe George, president of the Friends of the Shrine of Ss. Peter and Paul, said the members of his group are grateful that the shrine will remain open.
“The shrine is located on what is known as Holy Hill in Cumberland, overlooking the city, and it’s been an important religious and holy and historic site and it’s important to the local community as well as the whole Maryland Catholic community and region,” George said.
In addition to the weekday Masses that will continue, the shrine will host a Christmas organ and carols concert Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m., featuring two organists and a choir. After that performance, the congregation will participate in caroling to prepare for the Christmas celebrations.
The Friends of the Shrine hope to have a representative of the Redemptorists come to Ss. Peter and Paul to talk about Blessed Seelos, who is on the path to canonization. George said while the church is named for early saints – Peter and Paul – the connection to St. John Neumann and Blessed Seelos means that their important roles should be honored.
“We feel that this shrine is a place for pilgrimage,” George said. “The shrine has always been a launchpad of missionary discipleship from early on in history and will be again.” He said the group hopes to open the shrine for extended hours for prayer and reflection.
The Friends of the Shrine has a 12-member board with diverse business backgrounds. Its Facebook page has 675 followers.
“The Shrine to many Catholics in Cumberland is like what the Cathedral of Notre Dame is to the City of Paris and the world,” George said.
He said he has an 80-year-old aunt who was born and raised in Mount Savage who received all the sacraments at St. Patrick’s there. He said she is extremely disappointed she won’t be able to have her funeral there when she passes. “Church closings are not an easy thing on anyone,” George said.
St. Patrick in Mount Savage has historic church connections, as well. Cardinal Edwin Aloysius Mooney was born in Mount Savage and baptized at St. Patrick. He later became apostolic delegate (the pope’s representative) to India and then Japan. He was archbishop of Detroit from 1937 until his death in 1958.
Brenda Mathews, president of the Friends of St. Patrick Mount Savage Inc., said the group was formed when those who attend the church were informed that Our Lady of the Mountains no longer wanted to have financial responsibility for the Mount Savage church.
“Our group is committed to raising the funds necessary to pay the expenses that will be associated with the church and the church property for its continued existence as a Roman Catholic sacred space,” she said.
By doing so, the group hopes to guarantee a historical presence for the church and “continue to stand as a beacon for the Catholic faith for generations to come.”
The group has incorporated and is seeking IRS 501(c)3 nonprofit status. The group will lease the church from the archdiocese.
The church will be able to celebrate two Masses per year – one on the church’s patronal feast day of St. Patrick, March 17, and another on the anniversary of the dedication of the church, Oct. 5.
The church will not be allowed to hold any funerals or baptisms, but it may be able to host weddings, with approval of the archdiocese, in accordance with the archdiocesan policy for weddings at venues other than parishes.
Mathews said the group wants to preserve St. Patrick because “first and foremost it’s very dear to our hearts. We are a very close-knit community. Some families have five generations of families who have grown up in that church.”
She noted also the historical connection to Cardinal Mooney, whose birthplace on Old Row was preserved under the auspices of the Mount Savage Historical Society.
She said she hopes those who have been attending Masses at St. Patrick in Mount Savage will continue to support Our Lady of the Mountains and attend Mass at St. Mary and St. Patrick in Cumberland. Some may go to St. Michael in Frostburg, part of Divine Mercy Parish.
“Others – you know I hate to say it – unfortunately, may attend other denominational churches,” she said, noting that Mount Savage still has Methodist and Episcopal churches. “I can’t speak for those people but that’s just what is available in Mount Savage at this point.”
She said her group – which has an eight-member board – will take over all the financial responsibilities for the church’s stained-glass windows and any other repairs and maintenance through fundraising, pledges and donations. The group may also seek historical grants.
The original St. Ambrose Church was built in 1886 on the site where the rectory/youth center is now located. Administration of the parish was placed under the auspices of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars, who still serve Our Lady of the Mountains. Ground was broken for a larger church on the present site in October 1955 and a major renovation was conducted in 2005-06.
Archbishop Lori emphasized how important the churches in Mountain Maryland are to the archdiocese. “What I have greatly appreciated in this whole process is the spirit of collaboration that has prevailed, led by Father Chervenak and his team. They have done a lot of listening. They have done a lot of hard work.
“They have brought to this a vision of evangelization, recognizing that resources are limited and that we must direct as many of our resources as we can to doing the Lord’s mission. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to get total consensus but there is a fairly broad consensus and I’ve appreciated how Father Greg and his team have collaborated with the archdiocese,” the archbishop said.
Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org
This story was updated Nov. 24, 9 a.m., to clarify number of churches that will be permanently closed.