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The Rev. Dana Christensen, of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Dimock, puts on his vestments before the Ash Wednesday service in Dimock. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

Big change for little parishes

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DIMOCK -- It's a challenging time for Catholics in small communities throughout South Dakota, something even the Rev. Dana Christensen said he's anxious about.

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There are fewer priests, and the population of Catholics has decreased. That means some hard decisions are at hand, as the parishes in the eastern part of the state are subjected to potential mergers and the combining of resources.

Christensen serves Saints Peter and Paul in Dimock and Holy Trinity in Ethan. He called the proposed mergers "very difficult and emotional," but area Catholics say if it's good for the Sioux Falls Diocese as a whole, they'll support Bishop Paul Swain's final decree when it's announced in the coming weeks prior to changes taking effect July 1.

"I don't like it, that's for sure," said Elaine Neugebauer, who lives about halfway between Dimock and Ethan and has called Saints Peter and Paul her home church for nearly 50 years. "But I know the bishop is doing what's best for everyone. Nobody wants to see a church close."

The matter is a pressing one, according to the diocese, which includes all of eastern South Dakota and will have eight fewer priests available to be assigned to parishes in 2014. That could mean the shifting of pastoral assignments, and priests could be reassigned to serve newly configured parishes.

In the case of Dimock and Ethan, their parishes would merge and become one, while the churches in Parkston and Tripp would also merge together to create one parish. If Dimock and Ethan were to merge, the two parishes would combine to create one parish council and one finance council for the entire geographical area. Together, those two merged parishes would share one priest, meaning Christensen or the Rev. John Rader, who serves in Parkston and Tripp, could be reassigned.

That decision is up to Swain as the bishop. Christensen admits he's "a bit anxious about what the future holds."

"I trust that the Lord has a plan for me and for the parishes entrusted to my care," Christensen wrote in an email to The Daily Republic. "I trust that His plan is much better than any plan I could ever envision for myself, so I will trust God's plan, whatever it might be."

Changes could also impact the number of masses. In the case of Parkston/Tripp and Dimock/Ethan, where there are currently six services between the four towns, there could be fewer than that with one priest shared between four towns.

Decreasing numbers

Church statistics from 2011-12 indicate that the city of Sioux Falls' nine parishes alone have 25 percent of all the East River Catholic households. Adding the parishes of Aberdeen, Brookings, Mitchell, Pierre, Watertown and Yankton accounts for 53 percent of the diocese's total population.

Across the diocese, church events, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, decreased by amounts between 7 and 18 percent from 2007 to 2012.

"There's just not as many priests as there used to be," said Leonard McGee, who lives in Springfield and goes to mass at St. Vincent's Catholic Church. "A lot of rural areas are all dealing with the same problem."

St. Vincent's already shares the Rev. Joseph Forcelle with St. Leo's Catholic Church in Tyndall, and a proposed plan would share one priest among those two parishes and Tabor's St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. Each parish would likely have one service in its church per weekend, while Tabor would likely keep its daily mass, according to McGee. St. Vincent's was already reduced to one mass, but the move will likely be a change for the Tyndall and Tabor congregations.

"I think it's going to work," McGee said. "We're very happy to have a church but there's always some anxiety with things like this."

Recent letters have been sent to Catholic households in both the Mitchell and Yankton regional deaneries about the proposed changes, which mostly include merging two or more parishes and sharing pastors. No changes have been made official yet, but the diocese hopes to have the changes in place by July 1.

The diocese has indicated that the closing of current church buildings is not part of the plan, something Christensen said could be a small consolation. The buildings will be available for prayer and special events like funerals and weddings at the priest's discretion and as long as the local community can keep the building maintained. But in newly combined parishes where mass and priests will rotate among different churches, exactly where services will be held on a weekly basis is yet to be decided.

McGee said he has seen some younger families coming back into the church recently and he said it's rejuvenated the parish to an extent. That's good news after there were discussions about closing the church in Springfield, a building that was put up in the 1970s and is accessible for those who are physically disabled. Almost all of the parishes in the area date back to the late 1800s.

Some of the long alliances area churches have built in recent years could end with the bishop's reorganization. In White Lake, the parish could share a priest with a newly merged parish consisting of Plankinton, Stickney and Mount Vernon. White Lake has shared a pastor for parts of the last 25 years with Kimball, whose parishioners are waiting for a letter regarding their parish, as the bishop has not yet released his plans for the Pierre-Huron deanery.

The potential split of Kimball and White Lake has members of both churches feeling uncertain, according to David Gillen, who represented White Lake's St. Peter's in the planning process with other parish representatives.

"We like it the way it is now," Gillen said. "But if we have to make a change I'll support it. I'm confident that the bishop will do his best to help everyone."

Maynard Konechne, who represented Kimball's St. Margaret's in planning meetings, said parishioners don't know what will happen if St. Peter's and St. Margaret's are no longer linked. In those pastoral planning meetings, Konechne said parish representatives gave unanimous support to a plan that would have shared a priest between Kimball, White Lake and Duncan

Church in Gann Valley, but the letter to Mitchell deanery members hints that the bishop will go in a different direction. Konechne said Kimball and White Lake share a Knights of Columbus council, something that he said Mount Vernon and Plankinton don't have.

"It would be tough because our schools are together and we've worked together for so long, but we need to make sure that our spiritual needs are met," Konechne said. "Hopefully, we could still work together even if we're not sharing a priest."

Sign of the times

For parishioners, the mergers are just a part of living in South Dakota, which will never be like it once was, in both positive and negative ways.

"There's not as many farms or schools as there used to be and we just don't have as many priests," Neugebauer said. "It's just like everything else."

She said no matter what happens, the current cooperation of Dimock and Ethan has been a good one. Holy Trinity in Ethan has worked with Saints Peter and Paul since 1989 and students are currently together for Catholic education classes in Dimock.

Christensen said parishes have merged in the past and those communities have grown and learned from it.

The letters written to the parishioners from the diocese outline the considerations that would be used for the mergers, which include populations for each church, frequency of services, financial stability of parishes and the physical status of church buildings and the health of individual priests. One of the goals was to limit traveling distances for the parishioners and priests to 20 miles and to three services per pastor per weekend.

"Change is never easy, yet it is a part of life on the prairie as you know from the history of our state and diocese, and from your family experiences," Swain wrote in his letter to parishioners. "This is reflected most recently through school consolidations and economic adjustments. We should not expect that these will be the only changes, as additional mergers may be needed in the future."

Christensen said that in his experience as a priest, people understand change in South Dakota. He said this change will be no different, even if it's difficult and emotional.

"Our ancestors survived change. We will survive change and generations to come will survive change, too," Christensen said. "It's not easy, and there will be tears, but through the tears we have hope for a vibrant future for generations to come."

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