After two years of planning, some Northeast Nebraska parishes will be coming together soon.
This week, the Rev. Pat McLaughlin took over as pastor of the Norfolk Sacred Heart Parish. The parish is also coming together, or clustering, with St. Leonard Catholic Church in Madison and St. Peter’s in Stanton and then will also include St. Patrick’s in Battle Creek as of 2020.
McLaughlin, a north Omaha native, has a primarily Catholic school background and graduated from Omaha Benson High School. He is a self-proclaimed lifelong learner and has the diplomas to show for it: His academic career includes a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in chemistry, a master’s of divinity and theology, teaching credentials and endorsements and a master’s degree in educational administration.
The first time he thought about becoming a priest was when he was younger, but the aspiration took some time to culminate, he said.
“In seventh grade, I first thought about the possibility of being a priest. Then, when I was in grad school, it resurfaced that that’s the direction I wanted to go,” he said. “I knew I was going to go into seminary probably three years into the doctoral program.”
He has been serving the priesthood for 16 years, including at parishes in Omaha, Winnebago, Dodge and Homer. He has been pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish and president of St. Francis School in Humphrey since 2013.
McLaughlin said his peers were surprised when he took to the rural environments where he was assigned.
“My priest group was razzing me: They had an over-under pool on how long I’d be able to last, but I kind of fell in love with rural Nebraska,” he said.
Once his work started including teaching, he decided he wanted to go back to school to study education, and then school administration. When it came time for another assignment from the Omaha Archdiocese, he requested a cluster of parishes that included Catholic schools.
The Northeast Nebraska parishes fit the bill; Sacred Heart in Norfolk has a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school and Madison has a preschool through sixth grade school.
“I consider Catholic schools an important apostolate of the parish — it never should be thought of as separate from the parish,” he said.
Coming together as a cluster is something new for the parishes.
The Revs. Gregory Carl and Scott Schilmoeller will be serving as assistant pastors for the parish cluster that will total 8,900 parishioners next year when Battle Creek’s Catholic church joins. Schilmoeller, who is currently associate pastor of Sacred Heart, is taking over for the Rev. Jerry Connealy in Stanton and Carl is currently pastor of St. Leonard.
This change is the result of various phases of planning, which has involved input from stakeholders and churchgoers, Carl said. The pastors have met numerous times in preparation of implementing it.
The move to a cluster system is a response to fewer priests overall in the United States. Becoming a cluster is a collaborative way to take charge in response to the shift, Carl said.
“I’m really glad we’re trying to be proactive to face a challenging situation. I’m so pleased by that,” he said. “Because in many other places, in our own diocese, there have been situations … where we have to scramble to fulfill responsibilities of parishes or meet the needs of our people in kind of an ad hoc way, just get things covered.
“Whereas here we’re trying to be proactive; we’re in a challenging situation — what’s the best way we can try to respond.”
The transition process comes with its fair share of logistical challenges, however.
One of the thorniest is changing schedules of when a mass takes place, which involves each town’s parish losing one mass time. Another is keeping each parish a priority and delegating responsibilities to each priest.
In addition, Madison and Stanton will no longer have priests living in their towns, instead living and working from Norfolk. Leaders have addressed these issues by seeking feedback and setting a schedule for each parish.
Parishioners have responded in a variety of ways to the upcoming changes, Carl said.
“You kind of get the whole gamut of responses,” he said. “I think, for the most part, that people are engaged with this process. They want their parishes to be well-served and they also want their priests to be sane and healthy. … Overall, there’s an enthusiasm for making a plan for the future rather than having it come at you. That’s pretty huge.”
Schilmoeller said one of the biggest challenges for parishioners, especially those in the smaller towns, will be adjusting to having priests based in Norfolk.
“The No. 1 challenge is going to be fear of the unknown. It’s going to be a new experience for ... outlying parishes who won’t have a priest living there,” he said. “There’s a fear of, ‘Will I be supported, will I be forgotten?’ That’s what we don’t want.”
Carl is currently helping Madison parishioners adjust to this new way of life.
“For the first time in many decades they’d have a pastor of their parish who doesn’t reside in the parish. Because I have relationships with people in the parish, I hope to help them transition into being led in this way,” he said. “... A number of people in Madison already have acquaintance with Father Pat and have good reason to trust that he’s a pastor who has their good in mind.”
The pastors said they believe this new arrangement will have many benefits for the parishes. Foremost, Schilmoeller said, the parishes will be able to come together as one. It’s also an opportunity to bring together English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners, as Norfolk and Madison have bilingual services.
“It’s a really good thing because a church is larger than an individual church. ... Most only have the experience of the individual parish,” he said. “That’s a beautiful thing, but seeing the different cultures and identities of each parish working together — that can benefit the church at large.”
Teaming up will allow each pastor to specialize in their area of expertise, Carl said.
“In my mind, that’s the big one: If we can collaborate and focus on our strengths, that gives us an opportunity to lead more effectively,” he said.
McLaughlin said another benefit will be sharing resources among the parishes, which he sees as an “extended family.”
“It’s going to be challenging but at times — maybe difficult — but it is exciting, the opportunities,” he said. “ … The idea of this cluster is that we are all one family and so we want to create opportunities where we can rejoice in what we have as an extended family.”