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Church of the Resurrection celebrates journey to unity

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Tess Wilfong, left, John Jones and Deacon Royce Winters pose in front of the Church of the Resurrection. The parish will be celebrating its fifth year anniversary Mass in early August. (CT Photo/E.L. Hubbard)
Tess Wilfong, left, John Jones and Deacon Royce Winters pose in front of
the Church of the Resurrection. The parish will be celebrating its fifth year anniversary Mass in early August. (CT Photo/E.L. Hubbard)

By Walt Schaefer
For The Catholic Telegraph

On August 2, 2010, 750 people came to the first Mass at the then newly formed Church of the Resurrection in Bond Hill, a largely African-American congregation created by the merger of four parishes in the heart of Cincinnati.

“We’ve not had that many people since,” said Deacon Royce Winters, pastoral administrator of the parish housed in the former St. Agnes Church on California Avenue. “We had to recognize just what we were doing. People were coming to see if they were going to survive.”

Some people understood the need for consolidation of parishes. Others were not committed at the same level they were at their former home parishes. About 70 percent of 1,200 parishioners have acclimated to the new parish. The other 30 percent were unable to accept the change and left. There has been steady growth. Since June, 2014, 32 new families have registered.

“So now, five years later, people are developing that sense of commitment. It has happened; but to say my church is the Church of the Resurrection has taken time to do,” Deacon Winters said.

Back then, the archdiocese, aware of dwindling numbers at the four parishes and facing a predicted shortage of priests, decided to merge the parishes. Each had fewer than 500 parishioners and each was facing the insurmountable burdens of operating parishes with inadequate membership, and financial support much of it needed to maintain older buildings.

Merged were St. Andrew Parish, Avondale, founded in 1892 with a church built in 1917; St. Mark Parish, Evanston, founded in 1902 with a church built the same year; St. Martin de Porres Parish, Lincoln Heights, founded in 1935 with a church built the same year, and St. Agnes Parish, Bond Hill, founded in 1892 with the newer church built in 1956. Except for St. Martin de Porres’ church, sold to the Lincoln Heights Baptist Church, the other buildings remain under the ownership of the parishes, and are maintained at a basic level. They are for sale.

“The people who are here now are people who are committed to the Church of the Resurrection,” said parishioner Tess Wilfong, formerly of St. Agnes. “To a degree, the growing pains have to happen and there’s a five-year plan for most things that are successful. Any new business you look at takes five years. And if it lasts five years, it’s going to be successful. People are either going to make it or break it. To me this is a successful parish because we’re still here; we’re five years old; we’re growing. The level of commitment now it is so much greater than what we had.”

John Jones, former parish administrator at St. Andrew and a Procter & Gamble retiree, lived through the change. There were 160 parishioners at the Avondale parish when it closed.

“It was like hell when we closed,” Jones said. “No one really wanted to leave even though we were just 160 people who were there and who were very supportive. It’s comes down to a history thing. Their parents had gone to St. Andrew’s. They wanted to continue. Their families were buried from that church. That in and of itself became a big problem. There were a lot of people who actually did not want to come here. There were people who were angry. But I think that a lot of that is gone by the wayside.

“At this time I would not really call this a true success story, yet.” Jones said. “I think it is a success story in progress. Some of the people from St. Andrews did not come here…, but we have people here who were members at St. Andrew’s. They’re doing very well. The only time I personally hear any grumbling is when things don’t go their way, but that happens at any parish. They are starting to acclimate themselves. It’s all about acclimating to change, and that’s very hard to do. If you go to a church for 40 years, it’s difficult to change, but now we are establishing our new identity.”

Deacon Winters noted “in the early years we were very concerned about whether or not we were losing people at a rate that we would not make five years. Now, we have hit five years. We now know we are growing the parish by number and by stewardship — time and talent and treasure. The success story is still in the making but you certainly have to celebrate the milestones people have made along the way — milestones that took coping and sacrificing and pain in order to grow something new.”

“This is my level of faith: I believe in what God does and I feel honored and blessed here,” Wilfong said. “How many people can say they have been part of a merger creating a brand-new parish from the beginning? How many can be part of that? It is awesome, and I was excited to get all the talent in one parish from all four parishes… The possibilities we have!”

Precious Blood Father Dennis Chriszt, pastor, said, “Five years ago, we were four parishes. Now we are one. Like any parish, not everyone agrees with everything we do here, but most members now see the Church of the Resurrection as their parish. We brought some of our old friendships and traditions with us, but we’ve also made new friendships and developed new traditions.

“Just the other day, I was at a meeting to plan this summer’s Vacation Bible School. In the room, people from each of the previous parish communities gathered, and it was wonderful to see them working together like they had known each other forever. Just as God did great things at St. Andrew, St. Mark, St. Agnes and St. Martin de Porres parishes, God is also at work at the Church of the Resurrection…  Pastoring this parish has been a learning experience for me and for everyone here as we build new relationships as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

“This is a success story,” Deacon Winters said. “You plan to close and merge parishes and historically those parishes don’t do very well in the short term. You’re dealing with five years of this parish in transition. Understanding, love, the ability to unify, all of those things were all over the place and yet people remained in significant numbers even though they were in pain. The parish sustained itself even though the people recognized the pain of losing their parish, of changing the culture of worship, they remained steadfast on the journey. Now, five years later, we have begun to create what we call the community of the Church of the Resurrection. More people are committed to service and giving and that is truly a successful merger.

When it happened, “the four parishes still viewed themselves as viable entities,” Deacon Winters said.  “What I celebrate today is that there were people who dared to dream and there are a significant  number of those dreamers who have remained on the journey with God creating a parish — a journey that was a blessing with hardships… We have to celebrate the gift that is worship and stewardship. Today, as we look back, we can now see that God has been with us all the way.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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