The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 9, 2011

Active church struggles to remain open

Local Catholic church victim of extreme priest shortage

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church has received what some might deem divine intervention.

The church will not close June 1 as previously announced by Oklahoma City Archdiocese.

Instead, St. Gregory will become a mission church of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church for one year to allow for an organized transition. The original plan was to close the church, with parishioners moving to St. Francis immediately, but that announcement brought an outcry from some of the congregation.

During the transitions, parishioners hope they can work with the new archbishop of Oklahoma, the Rev. Paul S. Coakley, to find an alternative to closure. Members say their church is active in the community and contributes through a number of programs for the needy.

Outgoing Archbishop Eusebius Beltran said he listened to members of the St. Gregory parish and as a result of their comments assigned a committee of parishioners from each church and archdiocese personnel to prepare a transition plan, which will include the long-term use of the St. Gregory property. He also altered the schedule to allow more time to develop a practical plan for a unified parish.

One pastor will lead the Catholic community of Enid, Beltran said in a letter.

“The change of Saint Gregory from a parish to mission status will necessitate schedule and activity changes as of June 1,” Beltran said in the letter. During the coming year the situation will be assessed and modified as needed, he said.

Parish members are happy for the temporary reprieve but are working on changing the entire outlook for the church.

Enid accountant Sharon Trojan, a member of St. Gregory, is relieved the church won’t close June 1.

There is a possibility everything will change, she said, but she does not believe anyone knows the outcome.

“We are two parishes in one Catholic community; it’s important for people to know that. Maybe this will bring us closer together. We all need to work together; we need to be Catholic with a big C and a little C.”

The church closing announcement in January led many upset parishioners to complain publicly. Beltran spoke to the congregation after Mass Jan. 22-23. He said the reason for the closing is the imminent retirement of the Rev. Larry Kowalski, pastor of St. Gregory, and the shortage of priests.

Since then, two priests who were ill have died — the Rev. David Lafferty, pastor in Okarche, and the Rev. Thomas O’Toole, pastor in Ardmore.

“This reality reminds us of the need to restructure and realign parishes to be able to face the future with a viable plan,” Beltran said.

Tish Eason, chancellor of Oklahoma City Archdiocese, added the decision was not financial, echoing the lack of priests as the dominating factor.

Kowalski is 75. Priests usually retire at 70 then fill in at other churches until they are 75.

“The decision was prompted by an extreme shortage of priests,” she said in January. “We don’t have enough to staff two parishes in Enid.”

St. Gregory is an active parish. There are about 500 families with membership and approximately 300 that attend actively, church employees said. There also are seven employees at the church. St. Gregory has an active food giveaway program and helps those who cannot afford medicine or utilities. The Altar Society raises money for the Good Samaritan Fund for people in dire need.

The church pantry serves 200 families a week and served 6,000 families last year, according to church employee Dee Cunningham.