Parishioners ‘in deep grief’ over removal of Dominicans from historic New Haven church

mcgivney A portrait of Bl. Michael McGivney, unveiled Oct. 31 during the priest's beatification Mass./ Christine Rousselle/CNA

The forced departure of the Dominican Order from historic St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut after 135 years has deeply upset and puzzled some parishioners, who question why the move is necessary as part of a restructuring of the Archdiocese of Hartford.

“To be honest, we are in deep grief right now,” parishioner Erika Ahern told CNA in an email. “Both as a family and as a parish community, we see the removal of the Dominicans as a great spiritual tragedy.” 

Established in 1886, St. Mary’s is the second-oldest Catholic parish in Connecticut and the home church of the Knights of Columbus, whose founder, Bl. Michael J. McGivney, once the parish's assistant pastor, is entombed there.

In response to dwindling parish rolls, the archdiocese plans to merge multiple New Haven parishes into a single parish centered at St. Mary’s, which priests of the archdiocese will administer.

In a statement, the archdiocese told the New Haven Register that St. Mary is “uniquely suited as the center of a municipal model of pastoral care with several priests living together and serving the ten city churches.”

The number of Catholics in New Haven has declined from 70,000 in the 1930s to 10,000 today, the newspaper reported.

Once parishioners realized that the removal of the Dominicans was “a likely possible outcome of the archdiocese’s pastoral planning,” Ahern said, she and other lay faithful started a prayer group in late June to pray that the friars could be left undisturbed at St. Mary’s.

“We came together to fast and pray a novena to Our Lady of the Rosary,” Ahern said. “When that finished, we prayed a 54-day novena for the intentions of both the provincial and the archbishop.” 

On Oct. 5, Fr. John Paul Walker, O.P., the pastor of St. Mary’s, announced that the Dominicans would indeed be leaving the archdiocese as part of a larger restructuring plan by the archdiocese. 

“After discussions over the summer, the archdiocese has recently informed our Dominican Province that when this second phase is implemented, the pastoral care of this municipal parish will be entrusted entirely to the care of priests of the Archdiocese of Hartford — and thus a continuing presence of the Dominican friars in the pastoral ministry of St. Mary Parish or in residence at St. Mary Priory will no longer be possible,” said Walker in a letter to his parish. 

“It is thus with great sadness I share with you that in January 2022, the pastoral care of St. Mary Parish will be turned over to the priest(s) named by the archbishop, and the Dominican friars will depart from St. Mary Priory.” 

For Ahern, and many others at the parish, the decision to remove the Dominican friars from the archdiocese amid a shortage of priests is a confusing one. 

“It's difficult to understand this decision,” she said. “We have heard for so many years that there is a shortage of priests and a crisis of vocations in the archdiocese. It just seems strange to be severing ties with a thriving source of new vocations as is happening now with the Province of St Joseph.”

The Province of St. Joseph is one of the four provinces of the Dominican Order in the United States, and its territory stretches from New England to Virginia, and westward to Ohio. In August, the province welcomed 14 new novices into the community. 

Ahern told CNA that she and other parishioners do not view the situation as a “zero sum game” that necessitates the departure of the Dominicans. 

“It should be that the archdiocese can work together with the province so that the spiritual fruits of St. Mary’s can continue to thrive under the direction of the Dominicans,” she added.

The presence of the Dominican friars, said Ahern, “has greatly blessed our family and the families of the parish.” She said that her parish has “been gifted friars of the highest virtue and charity,” who have “brought a level of reverence to the liturgy that many of us never experienced before.” 

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“It's hard to articulate just the depth of their influence on our lives,” said Ahern. “We are especially grateful for the good example they have given us during this difficult time of humility, prayer, and reverence for the hierarchy of the Church.”

The Dominicans may, in the future, have some sort of presence within the Archdiocese of Hartford, but what that is remains to be seen. According to Walker, the archdiocese “asked the Dominican Province to consider three new ministries in the Archdiocese as an alternative to St. Mary’s.”

“As each of these would entail a radically new configuration of the Dominican life and mission in the Archdiocese, the Dominican Province has decided to evaluate these new offers at our next provincial chapter, which will take place in June of 2022,” he said.  

But for now, while they wait to see what happens next, Ahern and other parishioners of St. Mary’s are relying on the wisdom of another Dominican: St. Catherine of Siena. 

“She has been an example to us during this time of confusion and dismay,” said Ahern. “We hope that both the provincial and the archbishop feel the power of our prayers for them both. We look forward to seeing what fruit God will bring out of what feels like a tragedy at this point.” 

The Archdiocese of Hartford did not respond to CNA’s request for comment in time for publication.

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