Team effort opens doors in parishes
Priest, two sisters find parishioners are welcoming, involved
By Joanne Flemming
Fr. Mat Simonar always thought his first parish would be a small
"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
Fr. Simonar said he had the advantage of knowing many because he
grew up in nearby Institute and was "related to half the people
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
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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
They plan to start a faith formation advisory committee.
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."