NARROWSBURG, N.Y. – The parishioners of St. Francis Xavier Church in rural Sullivan County have been notified that the Franciscan friars will be leaving their community this summer. After July, the Province will no longer staff the parish that they have served for more than a century and will return care of the parish to the Archdiocese of New York.
The announcement was made the weekend of June 13 when a letter from Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, was read at the three Masses – two at St. Francis Xavier and one at the Lake Huntington, N.Y., mission parish. It was read by Al Smith, a parishioner who has been serving as a leader of the parish since William Scully, OFM, pastor became ill last fall. “Mr. Smith has been serving as a liaison to the archdiocese,” said John Alderson, OFM, who was named administrator earlier this year.
The parish, founded in the 1860s, has been staffed by the friars of Holy Name Province since 1892. In August 2012, the parish held an anniversary celebration that was attended by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
“Our last Masses here at the parish will be on the weekend of July 25,” said Kevin. “Needless to say, this is in no way an easy announcement to share, but it is a necessary decision for us.”
Kevin’s letter described two reasons for the departure: personnel and the Franciscan tradition.
Reason for Withdrawal
“When all is said and done, it comes down to two decisive factors: our declining numbers and our Franciscan charism,” said Kevin. “In 1985, we had 708 friars actively working in ministry in our Province. In 2001, we were down to 443 friars in active ministry. Today in 2015, we are around 290. Very simply stated, we no longer have sufficient friars to staff all the ministries where we have served in the past. Additionally, as you know well, due to serious health issues, Fr. Bill Scully is no longer able to serve as your pastor. Given our lack of personnel, we need to return the care of your parish to the Archdiocese of New York.
“Secondly, the charism of our Franciscans life and vocation calls us to live as brothers in community. Our fraternal life together is a serious priority for us — it is part of who we are and profess to be — yet it is something that is not possible in a small parish like St. Francis Xavier where a friar lives alone. So as our numbers have dwindled, we have had to make the decision to ‘sunset’ our ministry in those parishes where only one friar serves. This means that when a friar currently serving in a ‘sunset’ site leaves, he will not be replaced by another friar.”
Kevin continued, “I know that Fr. Bill began preparing your parish for this announcement some time ago, even before the onset of his health problems. So I pray that this decision will not come as a ‘bolt out of the blue’ for all of you, however painful might be this moment for specifying our withdrawal date. The Archdiocese of New York was notified by us several months ago about our need to withdraw, and they have assured us that they will be informing you very soon about their plans for the ongoing pastoral care of the parishioners of St. Francis Xavier.”
Mass of Thanksgiving
The Provincial Administration plans to arrange with parish leaders a Mass of Thanksgiving in the fall to “offer thanks to God for all the many blessings that God has poured out upon St. Francis Xavier Parish throughout our 123 years of ministry here,” said Kevin, adding that he hopes to invite all the friars who have served at the parish through the years.
The news of the date of the withdrawal has been “hard on parishioners,” said John, who has been stationed at St. Francis Xavier since November 2014. “Even though they were told many years ago that we’d be leaving, it is still difficult to adjust to the news that the parish will no longer be Franciscan. People seem to not want to say good-bye to the friars.”
In recent years, the Province has withdrawn from several parishes in New York. In 2014, it left St. Mary Parish in Obernburg, St Anthony of Padua Parish in Yulan, and St. Stephen of Hungary Parish in New York City. The year before, the friars withdrew from All Saints Parish in New York City and St. Joseph’s Parish in East Rutherford, N.J.
After the departure from Narrowsburg, the friars will remain in one Sullivan County town – Callicoon, home of Holy Cross Church. It is also the town where for nearly half a century, student friars were educated at St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.