Wilmette churches celebrate coming together as new parish

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Father Wayne Watts prays during the Unity Mass with Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier Parish on June 30, 2019, at Vattmann Park in Wilmette. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)

“It’s a joyous day.” That’s how Nancy Lou Kelly, a parishioner at the new Sts. Joseph and Francis Xavier Parish in Wilmette described the June 30 Unity Mass that celebrated the coming together of the two churches into one parish.

July 1 was the official day 38 churches formally became 18 new parishes as part of Renew My Church. To celebrate their unification, the Wilmette parish hosted an outdoor Mass in Vattmann Park that drew more than 1,000 people. Named after Father Edward Vattmann, who lived in Wilmette in the early 1900s, the park marked the former boundary of the two parishes.

“There’s really no boundary anymore. We’re one and today we celebrate that,” said Father Wayne Watts, pastor of the new parish.

The Wilmette churches had a head start in preparing for the official changeover when Watts became pastor of St. Joseph in January. Soon after his arrival, the churches formed a joint finance committee, a joint pastoral council and began combining other ministries.

“We created this amazing team called the Cross-functional Transition Team. They’re constituents from all of the different representations across town. They each took different duties,” Watts said. “We created a unity prayer. We created a parish mission statement. They’re working together on websites and bulletins and all communications. They’ve come together and worked out amazingly.” 

Everything hasn’t been easy but there is hope and trust in the Holy Spirit, he said.

“Renew My Church is really an opportunity to revitalize the church as St. Francis Assisi was asked to do [by Jesus] at the San Damiano cross. When it was introduced in Wilmette there were a lot of questions of why. Why now? Why us? And there have been a lot of bumps along the road,” Watts said. “I came in January and the bumps continued but we continue to say we are going to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us in the right direction and be positive and joyful moving forward. This was a decision that was made and now we just have to allow the Spirit to move us and do the right things.”

Kelly, who has attended the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier for over 25 years, agreed. That Mass was eliminated as part of the merger.

“The tough part was, for me personally, in my heart. My church, my community, the Mass times when I wanted to go. I think that’s really it for a lot of people,” she said. “But I go to St. Joe’s now. We make our sacrifices and pray together and let the Holy Spirit guide us.”

Kelly, who grew up in Wilmette and raised her family in the parish, said the Archdiocese of Chicago isn’t the only diocese going through a process like Renew My Church where churches are closing or merging.

“It’s happening all over the country. So let’s do this right and do it with joy and do it with love,” she said. “We can do this.”

Most new pastors of the 18 parishes did not have as much lead time before July 1 to start unifying their parishes, said Father Jason Malave, the cardinal’s liaison to Renew My Church.

“He had a little bit of a runway for that because he was the pastor of St. Joe’s,” Malave said.

Another pastor who had a lead time was Father Nestor Saenz at Our Lady of Fatima-St. Pancratius in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood. Saenz was pastor of  Our Lady of Fatima and administrator of St. Pancratius for six months before July 1.

That new parish hosted a unity dinner for about 250 people in the newly renovated hall of St. Pancratius.

“What’s really powerful about that dinner is that St. Pancratius was getting ready to close. They all believed they were going to close,” Malave said.

Now the parishioners are looking forward.

“There was just a real sense of optimism and hope for the future in the room,” Malave said.

Each parish has different dynamics so “there are other places where things are just beginning. The pastors are just getting in,” he said.

Those parishes are adjusting to new Mass times and new pastors and looking ahead at how the parish can become more vital to go out and spread the Gospel in the world, which is the goal of Renew My Church.

In the meantime, 40 other parishes are working together as part of the next wave of Renew My Church and will start discussions this fall about what their new parish structures will look like.

“We started back in April activating these groups and having the pastors name their grouping teams. They were together for a retreat back in June,” Malave said. “They’re going to be getting to know each other over the summer months all so that they can start their conversations in August and September.”


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