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Local parishes deal with ‘new reality’ as the number of priests decline
DEC. 3, 2012

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

DARWIN, MN – Due to a lack of Catholic priests, churches like St. John’s in Darwin are dealing with some changes, including sharing priests with other area churches.

“The reality is, we don’t have enough ordained priests at each parish,” said Father Joe Steinbeisser, pastor for St. Philip’s of Litchfield, St. John’s of Darwin, and St. Gertrude in Forest City.

In the Diocese of New Ulm, parishes are linked into area faith communities that consist of up to four churches.

St. John’s is part of the Good Shepherd and Seekers of Souls Area Faith Community and includes the three churches mentioned and the Church of Our Lady in Manannah, which is currently served by Monsignor Garvey until his retirement (yet to be determined).

In the past, St. John’s has shared a pastor with St. Gertrude’s parish.

“As we live that reality out, the bishop appoints one pastor and there may be other priests assigned as associate priests,” Steinbeisser said.

As of last July, Steinbeisser officially became the pastor of the area faith community and Father Jim DeVorak is the senior associate pastor.

Before a health setback in December, Father John Pearson served St. John’s and St. Gertrude since July 2009. Pearson is currently doing well, and is now retired and living at Divine Providence Retirement Center in Sleepy Eye.

While Steinbeisser handles the administration, both he and DeVorak share pastoral responsibilities among the churches, alternating Mass schedules.

Because there are now two pastors for three churches, Mass schedules needed to be adjusted to accommodate, “keeping in mind that we are responsible for Manannah in the future,” Steinbeisser noted.

“It’s a new reality that we are working through,” he said, noting he has seen a steady decline in priests over the years, though parish attendance has remained strong.

According to data provided by the Diocese of New Ulm, in 1999, there were 73 pastoral leaders for 71,908 parishioners. In June 2011, there were 45 pastoral leaders for 61,679 parishioners.

To plan for the declining resources and priests, the Diocese is working on a “Plan for Parishes,” that will address how the diocese will serve Catholics in the years ahead.

Currently, this plan is under review by pastoral leaders, and is expected to become public in May 2013.

The most difficult part of this transition has been determining a Mass schedule for each of the churches.

Sunday Mass at St. John’s previously was at 10:45 a.m. Now, Mass is at 9 a.m. Sundays, and 5 p.m. Saturdays.

Meeting the pastors

Father Steinbeisser has been a priest for 26 years. This is his sixth year at St. Philip’s of Litchfield.

Prior to coming to St. Philip’s in 2007, Steinbeisser served 11 years as pastor of the Church of St. Mary in Willmar.

Born in Olivia, Steinbeisser attended St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas from 1979 to 1982, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in communication. He earned his master’s of divinity degree at St. John’s University, Collegeville in May 1986, and was ordained in June of that year.

Father DeVorak grew up in Madison, MN and recently celebrated 40 years as an ordained priest.

At first, he attended Maryknoll in Chicago to study to become a mission priest.

“I wanted to be a missionary,” DeVorak said, adding, “I just saw so much need in the foreign lands.”

However, he was not prepared for the classical studies he found there and instead, found St. Paul Seminary suited him best. “I felt more at home,” he commented.

He was ordained in 1972, and served a number of assignments throughout the diocese after serving as an associate pastor at Holy Redeemer in Marshall.

Most recently, DeVorak served 12 years as pastor of the Church of St. Joseph in Montevideo and St. Andrew in Granite Falls, and as sacramental minister at St. Clara in Clara City.

As a senior associate pastor, DeVorak has enjoyed not having the responsibility of administration, which is left up to Fr. Steinbeisser. He can spend more time as a visitation pastor.

Considered to be “laid-back,” DeVorak said he tries to listen to people, adding that he is not judgemental.

“After 40 years in the priesthood, nothing is going to shock me anymore,” he said.

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