The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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August 24, 2001 Issue
Local News

Team effort opens doors in parishes

Priest, two sisters find parishioners are welcoming, involved

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

Fr. Mat Simonar always thought his first parish would be a small country church.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have five parishes as my first assignment," laughs the pastor of the five upper Door County parishes - St. Michael in Jacksonport, St. John the Baptist in Egg Harbor, St. Paul in Fish Creek, St. Rosalia in Sister Bay and St. Mary of the Lake in Baileys Harbor, plus the Washington Island Station.

Fr. Simonar's task, along with that of his two pastoral associates, Dominican Srs. Geri Hoye and Georgia Acker, is to form these parishes into the Northern Door Catholic Community.

Fr. Simonar has been in upper Door County since Nov. 1. The sisters joined him in spring.

Their first challenge, they agreed, was getting to know the people and determining which parishes they belonged to.

The sisters said Door County residents are "more welcoming, more involved with one another." Sr. Acker found them to "be more relaxed."

Fr. Simonar said he had the advantage of knowing many because he grew up in nearby Institute and was "related to half the people up here."

To get to know more people, the sisters joined a Scripture study group in Baileys Harbor led by Penny Biwer, parish secretary. Each weekend they attend Mass at a different parish.

Sr. Hoye said the people have invited them to their homes for dinner or asked them to join their families for various events.

The three said they are dealing with three groups of people: Those who live year-round in Door County, those who come up for the summer months, and tourists. The seasonals also can include Door County residents who go south for the winter, Fr. Simonar said.

They don't know how many families belong to the five mainland parishes, but Sr. Acker estimated it at 750-800 and Fr. Simonar said the Washington Island station has around 17.

They are taking parish censuses, starting with St. Rosalia, and putting the information in the computer. When "bugs" are worked out of the first census, others will be taken in the remaining parishes, Fr. Simonar said.

One problem he said he is running into is people who say they belong to two parishes because they attend Mass at both. Canon law says a person should belong to one parish, he said, and people are having a hard time understanding why they can't continue membership in two.

Because of the great number of seasonal people and tourists, there are 13 Masses on weekends from July 4 to Labor Day, Fr. Simonar said. "The Bishop has only allowed me four Masses on weekends." Thus, he has to find retired priests to cover the rest.

Former pastor helps

His main help has been Fr. Chester Cappucci, OMI, longtime pastor at St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Baileys Harbor, until the Oblates withdrew from Door County.

After Labor Day and until the end of October, there are 10 Masses on weekends. That number drops to six from Nov. 1 to Jan. 1. After Jan. 1 until spring, there are only four. Last winter the church at Jacksonport was closed down.

In spring, with the return of seasonal people, the number of Masses gradually increases.

There are six weekday Masses in summer: one each on Tuesday and Thursday and two each on Wednesday and Friday at the Egg Harbor, Baileys Harbor and Sister Bay churches.

There are weekly Masses on Washington Island during the summer. Fr. Simonar and Fr. Cappucci take turns visiting that station. If a visiting priest wants to celebrate Mass there, he is more than welcome to do so.

During the winter, Fr. Simonar said he goes out once a month on a Wednesday to celebrate Mass and visit his parishioners. He stays overnight because the ferry only runs once a day then. That congregation then holds Communion services on Sundays.

Wedding challenge

Weddings are another challenge. There can be three or four on a weekend. Often, the couple are not from Door County; they just want to be married there.

In that case, Fr. Simonar said, he continued a previous pastor's policy: The bride and groom must bring their own priest or deacon.

A third challenge is the parishes' fear that they will lose their identity if they become part of a larger entity, said Sr. Hoye and Fr. Simonar. They agreed that they wanted to preserve each parish's uniqueness.

"We want to bring the best from each and contribute that to the main pot," Sr. Hoye said. "By doing that, you aren't losing anything; you're just sharing."

The three said their top priority for programming is religious education. Until now, each parish has had its own program and religious education coordinators have worked in isolation. Jacksonport, for example, met only from September to December.

"We're trying to get them all on the same page," said Fr. Simonar.

Meet coordinators

The sisters have been meeting regularly with the coordinators. "By bringing them together, they have a greater sense of support and structure," Sr. Acker said.

A family handbook and sacrament policy books are being developed to add to that sense of support, she said.

Sr. Hoye said they want to hold a basic certification course for Door County catechists so groups do not have to travel to Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay for training. The sisters also want to train youth ministers.

Work on adult programming also has begun, Sr. Acker said. A survey was taken to determine what kind of faith formation programs people were interested in. These included Scripture study, small faith sharing groups, days or evenings of reflection and retreats.

They plan to start a faith formation advisory committee.

Movie discussions

In May, the sisters started monthly movie discussion nights. They have shown Dead Man Walking and Entertaining Angels, which dealt with social justice issues. As a result, parishioners said they want to know more about legislation. They also want to continue the discussions into the winter.

In their spare time, the sisters have made home visits to shut-ins. Because of the loneliness they have found, they decided to start a program where a family could adopt a homebound person and make him or her part of their lives.

Although Fr. Simonar and his pastoral associates say they have lots of work ahead, they feel they are making progress.

The sisters say Fr. Simonar is making a mark.

"He's just a draw," Sr. Hoye said. "No matter who people are, they know who he is. He's very visible in the community - not just the church community, the whole community. He's a breath of fresh air up here."

Fr. Simonar said he received a card from Fr. Mark Vander Steeg, associate pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Appleton, thanking him for his influence "on the people up there" after Fr. Vander Steeg talked with parishioners who had vacationed in Door County.

The three agreed that the work ahead of them is an adventure.

"Anything we do is fresh," Sr. Hoye said. "You get excited; then you get them excited, and it comes back to you. The more positive responses you get, the more energy you get."

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