Moving parishes brings new challenges

When Father Gary Krahenbuhl found out he would have to leave Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in July 2013, it came as a shock to him and to his parishioners.

Father Krahenbuhl had led the Beloit, Wisconsin, parish for 17 years with no set term and no immediate intention of moving on. But with only a few weeks’ notice, he was to become pastor of two parishes, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Portage and St. Mary Help of Christians in Briggsville, both in Wisconsin, and chaplain at the Columbia County Correctional Facility in Portage.

Having been at Our Lady of the Assumption, a somewhat urban parish of about 1,400 people, for so long, leaving was a wrench, Father Krahenbuhl said, especially because it was his first pastorate.

“On one level, it kind of is your first love,” he said. His move was traumatic for his parishioners as well, Father Krahenbuhl said, but he wasn’t as able to help them through it as much as he would have liked because he was grieving as well.

Saying goodbye

Father Randy Cuevas, who celebrated 34 years of priesthood in June, said there is grief involved with every move.

“It’s a loss, so you grieve,” said Father Cuevas, who moved to St. Aloysius Parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 1. He spent the past 11 years as chaplain at St. Albert the Great Chapel & Catholic Student Center at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as a pastor in Donaldsonville, Louisiana.

He had an advantage when he took both of those positions, because he knew people in the communities from previous assignments, he said. This year, he moved back to the parish where he grew up.

“There are people on the parish staff that were in the youth group with me in high school,” he said.

That doesn’t mean it will all be easy. He will be stepping into a pastorate left vacant when the previous pastor, Father Than Vu, died in January.

“He was much beloved, and I’m going to have to be aware of that,” Father Cuevas said. “When you move to a new parish, you always have to take into account the shoes you are filling. How long he was here, the way things are done, who put those things into effect.”

Accepting assignments

In many dioceses, pastors generally are given six-year terms, renewable once. Some pastors stay longer, either because their bishops don’t use terms for pastors or because some extenuating circumstance makes it beneficial for them to stay. Others are moved sooner, either because they are not a good fit for the parish or because they are needed elsewhere.

Sometimes the parish’s experience under a previous pastor wasn’t ideal. That was the situation for Father Paul Bonacci. He was transferred in July 2014 from the Schuyler Catholic Community, a cluster of four parishes in the Finger Lakes area in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, to St. Pius X, a parish in suburban Rochester.

He had been in Schuyler for 13 years, one as administrator followed by 12 as pastor.

St. Pius had a deacon administrator and nonresident pastor reassigned, followed by a year with a temporary administrator. Father Bonacci was assigned as administrator for a year, with the thought he might stay longer. Then, on the night of New Year’s Day this year, the parish’s church burned down. At that point, Father Bonacci committed to stay at least until the new church opens.

“I promised the bishop that I would stay with the church so they wouldn’t feel like I was abandoning them,” he said.

While he loved the community in Schuyler, his departure was expected, and he developed a prayer ministry for parishioners to prepare to welcome a new pastor, he said.

“We prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” he said, so that the right person would come. At the same time, he was praying and discerning where he wanted to go.

Seeing the differences

Father Bonacci said it was a bit different getting used to having one church, with more or less the same people there every Sunday. In his previous assignment, in a popular tourist destination, half the congregation could be visitors some weekends. Having a parish school now has helped, he said.

“I made a real effort to go into the school every Monday and visit all the classes and get to know the kids, and by the end of the school year, they felt like they could talk to me,” he said. “So I knew I had the kids.”

Getting to a know a community takes time, he said.

“A month before I left (Schuyler), I sat at a liturgy committee meeting, and I knew everyone around the table,” Father Bonacci said, “I knew their stories, I knew their strengths and their weaknesses, and they knew mine. A month later, I sat at a liturgy committee meeting at St. Pius and thought, ‘I don’t know these people. I don’t know their stories, their strengths and weaknesses.’ Boy, is it a different dynamic when you don’t know people.”

That’s compounded when the parishioners are still feeling out their new pastor, who is a visible figure in the community, even though they don’t know him well.

“There’s an element of fear,” he said. “People wonder, ‘Is he going to change things?’ Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

Embracing a new parish

Father Krahenbuhl said he thinks it will take maybe three or four years for him to feel like he really knows his new parishioners. The people have been very supportive, his staff is wonderful and he feels like he’s in the right place, but it’s not quite home yet.

On the other hand, after two years away, he can identify some downsides to having been at Our Lady of the Assumption so long. In 17 years, he watched children grow up and couples get older. That was a joy, but it came with its own problems.

“The last couple of years, I was doing 50 funerals a year, and a lot of these people were not just parishioners, they were close friends,” Father Krahenbuhl said. “But I really never had time to grieve or process that, and I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on me.”

The priests said an attitude of humility about their own role helps when they move on.

“I’m just here to bring Christ to the people,” Father Bonacci said. “I’m here to bring Jesus to the people, to help people pray, to deepen their relationship with Jesus.”

Father Cuevas said that he would advise a pastor coming into a new parish to “think before you say or do anything. Ask yourself what Jesus would say or do. Just love your people. If that comes across in everything you say or do, you’ll be a good pastor.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.