WATERLOO | When Monsignor Ralph Simington was asked to fill in at Queen of Peace Catholic Church last week, the retired priest wasn't just going there to celebrate noon weekday Mass.
He was going home.
Simington grew up within blocks of Queen of Peace. As a boy, he sold Waterloo Sunday Couriers after Sunday Mass when he wasn't assisting as an altar server. He graduated from the parish school, Our Lady of Victory Academy, in 1954. He celebrated his first Mass at the church following his ordination in 1962. His mother, widowed when he was young, had her funeral there in 1978.
"A lot of things have happened in this church," Simington said.
Simington admits he occasionally calls Queen of Peace by its old name, St. Joseph's -- or just St. Joe's -- as many do.
No one knows parish loyalty more than Simington.
But he also knows something else. When he was ordained 51 years ago, there were more than 400 priests in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Now there are fewer than 100.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, change is a constant in the Roman Catholic Church, Simington said. And for Waterloo Catholics, change may be coming again.
Waterloo's Catholic parishes, which serve nearly 12,000 people, a little more than one-sixth the city's population, are planning for what may be the most extensive reorganization for the Catholic community in 10 years.
A 20-member Pastoral Planning Task Force of Catholic parishioners and clergy is preparing for the eventual loss of a pastor among Waterloo's four Catholic parishes, requiring three priests to serve four parishes. As recently as the early 1990s, at least one parish in town still had three priests. Now, each is served by a single pastor.
Task force members emphasize they are planning for the loss of a pastor, not a parish.
"This is not about closing a parish," said Monsignor Lyle Wilgenbusch, the archdiocese's episcopal vicar for Waterloo. "This is about how do we have these (parishes) work together better when we need to."
The two options being explored involve "clustering" -- two or more parishes with one pastor coordinating ministry but each keeping its name, building and identity.
Under one alternative, all four Waterloo Catholic parishes -- St. Edward, Sacred Heart, Blessed Sacrament and Queen of Peace -- would be clustered together and led by a single pastor and two assistant priests.
Under the second option, Blessed Sacrament and Queen of Peace would form one cluster, St. Edward and Sacred Heart another. Each would be administered by a pastor, with one associate pastor floating between the two clusters.
Under both alternatives, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Cedar Falls would remain a stand-alone parish, but its pastor would help serve the Waterloo parishes.
No churches would close under either alternative. But the clustered parishes would have to determine a shared Mass schedule, with a priest or priests spreading their time among multiple buildings.
Each parishioner would contribute to his or her individual parish for its ongoing building upkeep and operations, but all would share some costs of the "clustered" priests and other shared staff.
Parishioners were surveyed as to their preference of the two clustering options. Both options, and the survey results, will be submitted to Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels for final action. He could approve either option or leave the present parish structure unchanged.
Any change, if approved, could occur as soon as next year if a priest retires or is reassigned, or it could occur over several years. Either way, task force members and local Catholic clergy said it's time to plan for the future given declines in both the numbers of priests and church attendance.
Clustering is common throughout the Dubuque Archdiocese. In fact, only 25 of the Archdiocese of Dubuque's 161 parishes are "stand-alone" parishes; the rest are connected with one or more others in some fashion.
However, this is believed to be the first time in the archdiocese that Catholics in an entire community the size of Waterloo has considered clustering. And St. Patrick's in Cedar Falls, with its estimated 3,800 Catholics, is not untouched, since the pastor there also will have to assist at the Waterloo parishes.
Within Waterloo, it is the most significant change in a decade, since four east-side and Evansdale parishes were closed and consolidated at the former St. Joseph's Catholic Church to form Queen of Peace.
Craig White, a Black Hawk County supervisor and a longtime member of the Queen of Peace parish council, is spokesperson for the pastoral planning task force. He went through the Queen of Peace consolidation 10 years ago, a difficult process for many.
White said lessons learned then have made the current process more proactive. Changes are being worked out from the bottom up -- from the parishioners to the archbishop -- not as the result of a mandate from Dubuque to implement a predetermined plan.
"I personally know there is no 'plan' out there. It just doesn't exist,"' Wilgenbusch said. "The plan is, you're probably going to have less priests. We have less people coming to church. And until we get those things turned around -- and that'll take maybe a generation --- we have to do something."
"It's reality," White said. The numbers paint a stark picture.
According to figures provided by Wilgenbusch, there are 91 full-time priests in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, and that number is expected to decrease to 75 in five years. Of those, 56 would be available as pastors. Others serve as hospital chaplains, archdiocesan administrators or teachers. While there is a recent modest increase in vocations to the priesthood, it has not kept pace with retirements.
The four Waterloo parishes serve an estimated 11,600 people. When Cedar Falls is added, the number rises to more than 14,800 Catholics in Waterloo-Cedar Falls. They are served by a total of five full-time pastors, one in each metro-area parish, or an average of one pastor for every 2,900 parishioners.
The membership among the metro parishes is fairly well distributed, based on 2012 numbers. Each of the five parishes has more that 2,000 members, ranging from more than, 2,300 at Queen of Peace to more than 3,900 at St. Edward. St. Patrick is now a close second to St. Edward, with roughly 3,850.
Priests are assisted by parish volunteers, staff and permanent deacons who can perform some of the same functions as priests. But it's a far cry from the three-priest parishes of past generations. And for many Catholics, there is no substitute for a priest during important times in one's life.
"They want to see this," Wilgenbusch said, pointing to his Roman collar. When a priest is present, for many, it means the church is present, he said. Families remain loyal to their home church -- sometimes over generations.
But for others, maintaining a variety of Mass times in the city is most important, regardless of where they are held.
The survey is an important ingredient in what happens.
"We had to let the people have their say," Wilgenbusch said.
Parishioners will hear more about those results in a few weeks. The survey results and comments from parishioners will be presented to the archbishop along with the two alternatives.
"It sits in this," Wilgenbusch said, tapping a summary report on the table in front of him outlining the two options. "If he (Jackels) likes them, he'll take one of them. If he doesn't, he'll say 'continue as you are.' I don't know how he feels. He's so new here." Jackels was installed earlier this year.
White said the Pastoral Planning Committee's work has prompted different parishes to work together and has already paid dividends in the form of inter-parish activities and committees. He hopes for a revival of social concerns activities.
Wilgenbusch noted the Waterloo parishes, unlike many other locales, already share an adult faith formation director, who offers religious education and activities for adult Catholics. The Waterloo parishes also share a website, "The Catholic Parishes of Waterloo."
Simington is not a member of the task force, but was a pastor in Manchester in 1996 when parishes in that area entered into a clustering agreement.
"The people themselves were surprised they were able to adjust," Simington said. The consolidation of the West Delaware public school district may have eased the process.
Some in Waterloo have suggested that also could happen here, with Cedar Valley Catholic Schools more deeply consolidated following the opening of Blessed Maria Assunta Pallotta Middle School a few years ago.
Manchester-area parishioners rose to occasion and took more active roles in the church and parishes, Simington said. He believes that will happen in Waterloo.
"I would be very optimistic about it, whichever direction things go throughout the city," Simington said. "... Change has been part of the church for some time. I still believe in the Holy Spirit. I still think the church is in the Spirit's hands."
He has just one request. "Being retired, I tell people I'll be happy to come celebrate Mass anytime, anywhere." But, he adds with a chuckle, "Don't invite me for any meetings. I've had enough of those."
See CLUSTERING, page A3
Survey of parishioners will
guide archbishop’s decision