Friday, June 21, 2024

Final Mass Celebrated at Holy Family Church, but Parish Family Remains Strong

On June 25, the final Mass was celebrated at Holy Family Parish in Harrisburg, which was officially suppressed on that day.

According to the Diocesan decree suppressing Holy Family Parish, its closing “makes new provisions for the spiritual care of its parishioners,” and provides a “seamless continuation” of the education of its young people.

A decreasing population, an insurmountable debt of $1.7 million, and ongoing maintenance, utility and insurance costs were among the factors leading to the closing of the parish. The decision comes after a town hall meeting with parishioners, the recommendations of the parish’s pastoral council and finance council, and consultation with the Presbyteral Council and members of the Diocesan Curia earlier this year.

Although the suppression of the parish had been in the works for quite some time for the 65-year-old parish, it was bittersweet, nonetheless.

“This has been a spiritual home for generations,” said Bishop Emeritus Ronald Gainer, who was the celebrant for the Mass, and who held the meetings with parishioners and personnel in February and March. “Let it be thanksgiving that we have in our hearts this day that is filled with so many emotions…We bring our gratitude to our Lord around the table of the Eucharist for these past 65 years.”

A few weeks into the new reality for former parishioners of Holy Family holds hope that although the parish itself is no more, the parish family is alive and well.

Father Manuel Avilés, OFM Cap., the last serving pastor at Holy Family and the current pastor at St. Francis of Assisi in Harrisburg, said he is encouraged by what he has seen, as the territorial boundaries of St. Francis of Assisi Parish – located on Market Street – have been altered to include the former territory of Holy Family Parish, less than 1.5 miles away on South 25th Street.

St. Francis of Assisi Parish established a new 4 p.m. Saturday Mass specifically to welcome Holy Family members. On July 2, Father Avilés, his fellow priests and parishioners of St. Francis celebrated that Mass with nearly 50 members from the former parish – half of the entire Holy Family congregation.

“It was a very happy moment,” Father Avilés said of the Mass. He said he was unsure how many former members of Holy Family would attend, thinking maybe they would see a handful or two. Instead, the newest members of St. Francis of Assisi showed up in force and got to work by serving as lectors, taking up the Offertory and fully participating in the Mass.

Father Avilés got a laugh out of the fact that many of them even sat in what would equate to the same pews as in their old church.

“They haven’t separated from the family; they’ve separated from their building,” Father Avilés said, stressing something that Bishop Gainer also mentioned at the June 24 Mass. Both Church leaders emphasized the bonds between the people and God, not the people and their building.

“This day is a loss of a home… but we have humble trust, love God and will have peace following His will,” Bishop Gainer said in June. “It is your faith, faith in Christ alone, not a building, not a place, that will sustain you with the Mystical Body of Christ ever present.”

A Decision to ‘Enhance the Good of Souls’

The decision to close one parish and suggest that it join in with another is a challenge for all involved, Father Avilés said. According to the Diocesan decree to suppress Holy Family Parish, the decision was made “in an effort to strengthen the preaching of the Gospel and to ensure the vitality of parish life, with concern for the best stewardship of resources and the right of the People of God to receive assistance from the Church.”

In signing the decree, Bishop Timothy Senior spoke to the history of the parish and the faith of its people since its establishment in 1958 and the opening of its school in 1959. “During that time, many people have heard the Word of God, have worshipped and received the Sacraments of the Church in that parish. During that time, many students have learned the truths of the Catholic Faith and advanced along the ways of academia,” he wrote.

“I am assured that the good of souls and the rights of parishioners will not be harmed in any way by this Decree,” he wrote. “In fact, this canonical and pastoral action is both prudent and necessary to enhance the good of souls.”

As stated in the Decree, all parish registers from Holy Family will be transferred to St. Francis of Assisi. Remaining assets from Holy Family Parish property will be given to St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Proceeds from the sale of the property will go toward the reduction of its debt, and any surplus will be given to St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Any debt remaining from the sale of Holy Family Parish property will be forgiven by the Diocese, and not transferred to St. Francis of Assisi.

The former Holy Family School realigned with the former Cathedral Consolidated School in Harrisburg in 2012 to form Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School. The Holy Family Campus welcomed students in grades K-4 until Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School moved entirely to the Cathedral campus in December of 2022 with the opening of the Cathedral Education Center.

Looking Forward with Hope

Bringing two parishes together into one can be difficult. St. Francis of Assisi is a different place with different challenges and expectations, Father Avilés said. He told Holy Family parishioners that the choice was theirs where to worship. Indeed, some will likely find other homes that may fit their needs more fully. But he stressed one message that he prays will bear fruit:

“You don’t have to come to St. Francis, but what I most desire is for you not to leave the Catholic Church,” he said.

St. Francis of Assisi now has three English-language Masses and three Spanish-language Masses each weekend. Adding the 4 p.m. Mass called for a permanent rescheduling of another Mass time. Father Avilés said a poll of those regular Mass attendees came back 99.9 percent in favor of rescheduling a Mass to accommodate and welcome the newest parishioners.

“It was a mutual sacrifice,” Father Avilés said of the work that has gone into this union. He anticipates a rewarding and positive future for the new family at St. Francis of Assisi.

“It’s actually a great joy for us,” he said on behalf of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, noting that the congregation had only been adding a handful of English-speaking parishioners a year.

“So to have 50 new parishioners in one week is life-giving,” Father Avilés said. “The Lord has allowed our church to be closed to give life to a parish.”

Father Avilés said being involved in the closure of a parish – even when those involved understand the reasons and know it’s ultimately for the best – is the most difficult thing he’s experienced in priestly life. But the faith that is accompanying the implementation is something that is very gratifying.

“It shows me that they’re following Jesus,” he said.

(Lisa Maddux is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness. Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Lisa Maddux, The Catholic Witness

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