New parish formed from merger rejoices after first anniversary

Parishioners filled St. André Bessette Church for a June 30 Mass marking the one-year anniversary of the parish.

Sheila McAfee
Special to The Michigan Catholic

Ecorse – A joyful, standing-room-only congregation recently celebrated the first anniversary of St. André Bessette Parish in Ecorse, a testament to the journey of faith parishioners have taken in merging two beloved parishes. “It was wonderful,” said Sharon Resst, St. Andre bookkeeper. “Parishioners even filled the aisles.”

The parish administrator, Fr. Cornelius Okeke, said the merger is a story of Catholics who allowed their faith in Jesus Christ to guide them through the merger and closure of a historic worship site in the Downriver Vicariate.

Even the church balcony was occupied by the faithful.

St. André Bessette Parish, which now has about 425 registered parishioner households, resulted from the merging in June 2012 of the former St. Francis Xavier in Ecorse and Our Lady of Lourdes in River Rouge, both founded in the 19th century. St. Francis was the first of the two, founded in 1848. Our Lady of Lourdes was opened in 1893 to meet the spiritual needs of the then-growing Catholic population Downriver.

In 2011, through the Together in Faith pastoral planning process, parishioner volunteers and staff from both parishes, as well as several neighboring parishes, evaluated the sacramental trends, ministries, finances, buildings and other resources to determine the best steps forward to maintain and grow the Catholic presence in the area.

After analyzing the data and considering the shared history and proximity of the two parishes, the parish councils recommended closing the Our Lady of Lourdes site and using the St. Francis Xavier site for the new parish. A new name was chosen for the merged worship community, St. André Bessette (1845-1937) having been a Canadian priest and healer.

St. André Bessette parishioners credit Fr. Cornelius Okeke for his pastoral care, and recognizing their needs and emotions as they continue their spiritual journey guided by the grace of God.

Like the Downriver faithful, thousands of Catholics in southeast Michigan have experienced the process and outcomes of Together in Faith planning, intended to result in a presence of Catholic parishes and ministries in Metro Detroit strong in sacramental and liturgical life, financially stable and positioned to evangelize the region. In some parishes, such as for St. André Bessette, difficult and heart-wrenching decisions have been made to cluster, merge and sometimes close churches that have witnessed the most important spiritual events in the lives of the faithful.

Central Services staff from the Archdiocese of Detroit guide and support parishioners and pastors through Together in Faith, designed as a collaborative, grassroots process through which they arrive at specific plans to be better stewards of parish resources.

Resst, a longtime parishioner of St. Francis Xavier, said she shares the sentiments of fellow parishioners from St. Francis and Our Lady of Lourdes who believe the merger is a positive result, despite the closing of the Our Lady of Lourdes site. “In recent years, parishioners from both parishes knew in their hearts how both parishes were struggling, financially and with the declining number of the faithful in the area,” she said. “Many of these same people were involved in determining what was done about the situation. Now we have doubled our resources and have fewer expenses for parish activities.”

A younger St. André Bessette parishioner enjoys the parish anniversary reception.

The parish website features a playful headline, “Under the same perfect management for 2,000 years!”

Mass attendance at St. André Bessette has doubled since June 2012, Sunday stewardship has increased, and annual events suspended at the previous parishes are back on the calendar. A Lenten fish fry earlier this year kicked off the comeback, and plans are under way for the second annual parish festival in September.

Several aspects of parish life at St. André Bessette have also been reinvigorated. Parishioners are re-engaged as evidenced by men, women and youth answering the call to involvement in various ministries with members of the previous churches represented as altar servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and in parish leadership. The parish became a host site for ChristNet, a service center for area homeless, and a winter craft show and rummage sale have been restarted.

St. André parishioners have also exceeded the parish goal for the annual Catholic Services Appeal, and parishioners have pledged more than half of their $207,000 goal for the Changing Lives Together capital stewardship campaign. The parish priorities through Changing Lives Together include paying down the parish debt, adding a handicap-accessible restroom to the church, and making general improvements to the parish complex.