‘Deeper, not wider’: As New Britain loses several Catholic churches, Rev. Michael Casey sees small but intentional community growing together

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The impending consolidation of several Catholic churches in New Britain will represent a loss in the number of buildings and weekend Masses, but ultimately could bring a greater unity among parishioners across the city, Rev. Michael Casey said Tuesday.

The Hartford Archdiocese announced this month that St. Jerome, St. John, St. Joseph and St. Francis of Assisi will remain operating as parish churches starting in January, all led by Casey.

Members of St. Maurice, St. Andrew and St. Peter are being invited to Masses there; their churches will be available for weddings and funerals for now, but most likely will be sold to reduce the costs of maintenance and repairs.

The reduction mirrors a nationwide pattern of dwindling membership, fewer donations and a shortage of priests. Once-thriving churches in and around older, larger cities across the Northeast and Midwest have been hit especially hard as parish priests reach retirement years.

Casey, 34, acknowledged that New Britain’s consolidation will be difficult for parishioners accustomed to their own neighborhood churches, but emphasized that nothing changes the core spiritual principles.

“The culture has changed. The legs of cultural Catholicism aren’t there anymore,” Casey said. “But the Gospel is eternal, no matter what changes in the world or in the church. It doesn’t compromise the fact that the Gospel is the Gospel.”

Casey visited each parish in the city in November to talk with parishioners about the future. Consistently he focused on the importance of the people of each parish.

“The people are more important than the buildings. No matter how much we care about the buildings, the people are more important,” he said. “If you have a family, the family is more important than the home they live in. You invest in your home, you love it. But the people are more important. If something happened to the home, God forbid, you want the family to be saved before you want the building to be saved.”

In his tour of the parishes, Casey has heard a mix of optimistic voices along with concerns and frustrations about what is happening. He is promoting a theme of each church’s membership being as welcoming and inviting as possible, particularly with the likelihood that further consolidation may be ahead.

In a letter to all parishioners in November, Archbishop Leonard Blair said the archdiocese faces challenges.

“I am referring to the diminishing practice of the Faith and of church attendance by any number of Catholics, which is matched by the ever diminishing number of priests to serve our parishes, many of which were established in the heyday of Catholic practice and of housing and population expansion in Connecticut,” Archbishop Blair wrote.

“Recognizing that even four church campuses will be impossible to sustain in the long term, a soon-to-be-formed ‘transition committee’ made up of parishioners of a new entity will discern the proper needs and location of churches, halls, rectories, etc. as it all unfolds,” he wrote.

Along with serving as pastor at St. Francis, Casey has been chaplain for Central Connecticut State University. The small but deeply involved groups from the university reflect an important part of the church’s future, he said.

“There’s a vision that the campus ministry be more united to parish life. Just over the three and a half years we’ve done that its been incredible to see lifelong parishioners now getting to meet the university students who come to pray, supporting each other,” he said.

“And we have a great young adult group. Small groups can have the most impact,” he said. “I see confidence, a new ardor and joy in our young people — they want to invite their friends here. They don’t say ‘look at our poor dying church,’ they say ‘we have 40 to 50 of our friends here, this is good.’ It may be small but it’s intentional, it’s strong, it’s committed — it’s not wider, but it’s deeper.”

Casey will serve at the St. Francis rectory with Rev. Daniel Wojtun, who will become chaplain for the Hospital of Central Connecticut, and Rev. Eduar Gutierrez, who will serve as the associate parish priest.

Casey acknowledged they will be working long hours.

“The goal is to spread the Gospel, to provide sacraments for the people and get to know them. I can’t do that sitting on the couch watching Netflix,” he said.

There will be five Masses each weekend, including one Saturday evening. There will be one at each church on Sunday mornings at staggered times. Casey said he was happy to hear parishioners ask that the priests have enough buffer between the Masses to ensure time to speak with people before and after. In response, he dropped plans for 8, 9, 10 and 11 a.m. services, instead scheduling for 7:30, 9, 10 and 11:30 a.m.

“We had town halls in each parish, and I loved seeing how the plan changed. The people elected to have the Masses spaced out more — they don’t want the priest just running between Masses,” he said.

“They want the priest to be there early, get set up, celebrate the Mass without rushing, then stay and talk with people after and have a coffee social. Again: deeper, not wider.”