Come July 1, Holy Rosary, Little Flower and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes in Billings will cease to exist.
Instead, all three will be consolidated into one church called Mary Queen of Peace Parish. The 1,869 members in the three congregations eventually will join together in a yet-to-be-built church somewhere on the South Side.
Consolidation planning that got under way 18 months ago culminated with a decree issued Jan. 1 by Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese. The decree will take effect on July 1.
At that point, the assets and liabilities of the three churches will come under the purview of Mary Queen of Peace, and new territorial boundaries will take effect. The sacramental registers also will merge, said Mike Mayott, parish life coordinator for all three congregations.
“We have a wedding on July 7 and the people will be married in the Mary Queen of Peace Parish, even though it will take place at Little Flower Church,” Mayott said.
The longer-term goal of uniting the three parishes under one roof could take as long as 10 to 15 years.
The Billings parishes aren’t the only ones in the diocese to merge. In April, three Great Falls churches will join together under the name of Corpus Christi.
Several factors led the diocese to turn to consolidation, Mayott said.
The first is the decreasing number of Catholics. Over the past 40 years, the number of Catholics in the Eastern Montana diocese has dropped from 70,000 to “40-some thousand,” Mayott said.
The second factor is a decrease in the number of active priests. Forty years ago the diocese had 110 parishes and missions led by 85 priests.
“Today we have 110 active parishes and missions being served by about 45 active priests,” Mayott said. “That workload is just not doable, you can’t sustain it.”
In the diocese, the distribution of priests is top-heavy, with men in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
“We’re light in the 30s, 40s and 50s, so our perspective is there are more going out quicker than there are going to be priests coming in,” Mayott said.
Nationally, an increasing number of men are entering seminaries on the path to priesthood, but the difference won’t be felt for 20 to 25 years, he said.
A third issue the diocese has grappled with is the decreasing financial resources needed to operate aging facilities.
With all that in mind, the diocese looked at how it could “make sure that the care of the souls of the parishioners is being provided,” Mayotte said. “That’s our No. 1 focus, our priority.”
Consolidation is one answer. Mayott and the Rev. Bart Stevens, who both came to their posts 18 months ago, have been involved in that process.
In his role, Mayott handles administrative duties and works with parishioners, but can’t administer the sacraments. That is done solely by priests — in this case, Stevens at Holy Rosary and Guadalupe, and the Rev. Paul Reichling, who has battled illness the past couple of years, at Little Flower.
When the three parishes merge, Mayott and Stevens will share leadership responsibilities, while Reichling will continue to assist as a sacramental minister.
Members of the three churches aren’t strangers to each other.
The parishes became a cluster more than a dozen years ago and for certain holy days, they worship together.
But that’s not the same as people leaving their home churches behind. Second and third generations of families whose parents and grandparents built these churches still attend, Mayott said.
“It’s understandable as we look at the circumstances that cause the closings, it’s going to be emotional and people are highly invested,” he said. “They’ll have to go through these different stages of grief because they’re losing something.
But Mayott also hopes parishioners will see the opportunity to create a new community, while retaining the culture and traditions of their past.
A long-term planning committee with people from the three churches has worked for 18 months to develop a 15-year plan. The group presented it to Warfel and a diocesan committee on June 3.
Once that was accepted, in early fall, the planning committee began work on a new name, which it submitted to Warfel in late October.
After Warfel accepted the name change, he issued the decree.
In his decree, Warfel made it clear the focus of the new parish will remain on the South Side. Our Lady of Guadalupe was created in 1953 specifically to meet the needs of the Hispanic community.
Little Flower also was built on the South Side, while Holy Rosary is situated in midtown. When it was established in 1951, Mayott said, “it was the far west church” in Billings.
“Now we have two churches farther west and four churches within a one-mile radius of St. Patrick” downtown, he said.
A new church building will eventually be constructed on the South Side, Mayott said. It will have to be large enough to hold at least 500 people and have adequate parking.
A parish commission is studying what the best location might be. Construction would not get underway until at least some of the existing church buildings are sold and the rest of the financing is in place.
The next step in the consolidation process will be to move the parish offices, now at Holy Rosary, to the South Side. Parish life programs at Holy Rosary also will be shifted as adequate space is located.
The intricate dance of merging three churches into one won’t be easy, Mayotte acknowledged. But he sees the benefits as well.
“I want people to realize this is going to be a positive change,” he said. “It’s going to be for the good of everybody and it will allow us to have a good solid Catholic presence in the city.”