Parishes without resident priests and the possibilities for collaborative ministry

In these days of uncertainty and hope about the future of our church, Wel-com went in search of some models of parish that are working well in their communities. Marcia Morrison has been working in Feilding parish for the past several years and gives some

Cecily McNeill

Flooding in the Manawatu town of Feilding last year showed how church and community can work together when people are in need, even if there is no priest in residence.

The floods which struck the district in February 2004 caused widespread havoc in a very short time one Sunday night.

Marcia Morrison, who has been the lay pastoral coordinator for St Brigid’s parish since the Marist priests nearly four years ago, says she was unable to get back to Feilding so the parish had to support people without her leadership.

She finally managed to get through the flood waters on Tuesday morning.

Then she discovered that the parish had swung into action seeking out parishioners and those known to the parish to make sure they were all right.

Priorities were to check that people had access to clean water, and somewhere to stay if their homes had been rendered uninhabitable.

Marcia says the Passionist Family groups worked ‘brilliantly’ contacting their own families and calling Marcia if they could not find people.

She says she phoned one parishioner who had not been at the Saturday vigil mass to discover that she was watching yet another tree fall across the driveway to her farm.

All hands on deck

So the call went out for those who could use a chainsaw to help clear the road.

Marcia brought up the rear with the thermos and scones to keep the workers going.

Some Southland women sent the parish hundreds of fruitcakes which Marcia says were great for bolstering morale. She gave a box of cakes to each district.

A Dominican sister was employed in the parish for nine months to assist in finding people in need. Sr Maureen was able to distribute money that the parish was given by the Mayoral Fund and offer personal support to many people throughout the wider district. Sr Maureen has just completed this task.

Marcia says some farmers lost 20 percent of their land and one farmer lost a bridge twice, in the February floods, then in flooding six months later.

St Vincent de Paul society and the Legion of Mary, two other groups which worked tirelessly to secure flood-stricken families, put on a flood luncheon once the crisis had passed and the local firebrigade showed photos of the flooded town in a powerpoint presentation.

Marcia says the way that the parish worked throughout this event shows collaborative ministry in action.

She recalls an 85-year-old Dutch man, Albert Geerlings, who was evacuated to a rest home when his home was damaged by floodwaters. He had not been attending regular Mass but the parish discovered his plight and elected to keep in touch with him.

He died earlier this year and Marcia led a funeral service for him for which the church was packed. He was a loner but his activity in the town had touched many.

A typical dilemma

Feilding is one of a growing number of parishes in New Zealand which have no resident priest.

Up to 90 people regularly attend the Saturday vigil mass with up to 120 going to Sunday Mass. There are some 500 families registered with the parish and over 30 sick and elderly people receive Holy Communion in their homes.

The parish takes in two marae, Kauwhata and Te Hiiri which are served from Palmerston North parishes but whose members often attend sacramental preparation classes in Feilding.

Marcia has lead the prayers at one tangi, held at a private home in Feilding. She says one of the children who knew her, from her contact with the parish school, volunteered to say the prayers in te reo Māori for her at the vigil prayers.

She attends tangi when she can because she feels it is important for her to be there to support the marae and their own catechists.

She says it was initially difficult for the parish to accept that they would no longer have a resident priest, after having had a Marist community in the parish.

But they soon realised that they were not missing anything because there is always a priest available when the sacraments are needed.

These days a priest comes from Palmerston North to celebrate the Saturday vigil and Sunday masses in the parish church.

Marcia, who has a Graduate Diploma in Religious Studies from Australian Catholic University can baptise when there is no priest available, though she points out that everyone has the right to baptise because of the call of the sacrament.

She can also lead funerals if they are not a requiem, and celebrate marriages under special circumstances.

Marcia believes that the Church is for the people and if it is not meeting the peoples’ needs, it is not doing its job.

She says at a recent Māori pastoral care meeting, one speaker told her that they believed in having a good laugh, good kai and making mistakes and enjoying them. She feels this is a good philosophy for the Church.

She tries to acknowledge at the parish masses, significant events in the lives of parishioners – birthdays, safe return from overseas holidays and other achievements.

She has an open door policy in the parish house where she mostly lives, and ‘makes constant coffee’ for her many callers. The house recently became a temporary refuge for one family in flight from an untenable situation.

The life of the parish is maintained through retreats in daily life. The Domincan preaching team is due there next year drawn by links with St Dominic’s school for the Deaf in the town.

The institute for World Evangelisation – ICPE – brought 14 young people for 10 days after the February floods to visit every family in the parish.

These also help build cohesion among parishioners and, she says, though there is no priest living there, the parish has great spirit.

Imported sacraments

As a parish without a resident parish priest, St Mary, Star of the Sea, Bluff, had an opportunity to reflect on the roles of the priest and of the parish community.

Although a priest was not present during the week, the Sunday Eucharist was almost always celebrated. For some parishioners nothing seemed to have changed. For others the situation was quite different.

Sr Margaret Butler OP, for eight years a pastoral worker ‘in charge’ of this small parish, said that because the priests always came from outside the parish it sometimes seemed that the sacraments were an imported event rather than part of the cycle of the lived faith of the whole community.

‘If the materials of the sacraments are from our everyday experience, and if we find God in our everyday experience, how do we explain that the worship leader is not from our everyday experience?

‘Part of the strength of the sacraments is that they form part of the ebb and flow of daily routine,’ she says. ‘If I reflect on the importance of bread, water, wine or words in my life, the experiences I have every day are largely the matter of my reflection and help me understand the sacraments.

‘The sacraments then both enrich me and are enriched by my experience and contemplation. They flow in and out of my life according to a sacred pattern. They are God active in my life, using the language of my life.’

The choice of leader

Sr Margaret’s finishing her theology studies coincided with the resident priest in Bluff becoming unable to continue working in the parish because of ill health. While the Bishop spoke with the parish pastoral council about appointing her, Sr Margaret sees that in the future a community would need to have a much greater say on who would lead them and act as pastoral worker in the absence of a resident priest.

Because of the closure of the meat works and a restructuring of the port, the town had lost a large proportion of its population and services, including the resident doctor, maternity home, resident clergy in other Christian traditions, banks and several shops. The appointment of someone like Sr Margaret helped delay the sense that the Church had also abandoned the town, and gave the parishioners time to prepare for when they were less well served.

Sr Margaret says one of her greatest learnings was how easy it could have been to fall into the clerical model rather than the harder but more desirable collaborative model. Because she chose to live in the presbytery rather than travel from Invercargill it was easy for her to slip into a clerical model. However, it was very important to live in the area.

‘It wouldn’t have worked if I had come in from Invercargill for a few days a week. I needed to be part of the scenery, recognised by many people in Bluff, rather than an occasional visitor with no roots.’

The parish, school and Sr Margaret were invited to explore different expectations.

‘Even after several years the desire of some in the parish was for a resident priest, or at least one who could live in the parish for a few days at a time. While the collaborative model was growing steadily the role and presence of the priest as the ‘spiritual leader’ continued to be seen as essential to the life of the parish.’

What to call her?

The parish community struggled to find a role name that adequately represented reality. Sr Margaret wasn’t an administrator, because this is usually the role of the pastor in a Cathedral parish. Nor was she an assistant, or a coordinator in just an administrative sense.

‘Roles in the ministry of our Church are changing faster than the language used to describe them,’ she said.

The lack of a title didn’t hinder opportunities as Sr Margaret became known as ‘our Sr Margaret’ in both the parish and the wider community and was called on for prayer at several civic occasions.


Sr Margaret and the Bluff parish were very grateful for the effort the visiting priests made to know the parishioners. The regular priests, particularly, soon knew most of the parishioners and showed a real interest in them. The parishioners consistently showed their sense of community through the support they gave Sr Margaret and the visiting priests.

Sr Margaret’s availability to all of the parishioners and the wider community and the confidentiality that often required meant that there could have been some loneliness. However Margaret had a strong network of support from outside Bluff. As well being part of the region of Dominican Sisters she also met regularly with others involved in Catholic pastoral ministry (the Deanery). For various reasons Sr Margaret had several years as the only woman in this group of priests, an experience that was both enjoyable and challenging.

Another major source of support came from belonging to an ecumenical group of women who were in various forms of ministry in a variety of faith traditions. ‘Many faced similar issues and creative ideas were explored,’ she said.

Sr Margaret Butler now works with the Catholic Education centre as Parish Support person, with a special reference to Sacramental preparation. And for recreation, she writes poetry, as she did in Bluff.