St Patrick’s Church in Masterton. PHOTO/FILE

Lack of priests, building issues, loss of numbers
Financial problems front of mind

STEVE RENDLE
steve.rendle@age.co.nz

A radical shake-up of the Catholic church in Wairarapa could see fewer church buildings, fewer priests, and a shift in the traditional HQ from Masterton.

In a letter to parishes in February, the Archbishop of Wellington Cardinal John Dew directed them to review their churches and presbyteries in response to a “critical situation” with the availability of priests, and make “prudent” use of buildings.

The need for earthquake strengthening prompted the closure of Carterton and Martinborough church buildings last year, and the review is likely to see further significant changes.

The five church communities making up the Wairarapa parish – Masterton, Martinborough, Carterton, Greytown and Featherston – are working to develop forecasts of likely congregation numbers up to 25 years ahead.

They’re being hampered by the delay in the release of the latest census data, and the leader of the project in Carterton, Ian Hawken, is keen to hear from any people identifying as Catholic who are not attending church for one reason or another.

The condition of St Mary’s in Carterton, for instance, prompted a ban on children before it was closed.

“All the church communities will be in a similar position in terms of wanting information,” he said.

Wairarapa has two priests – one on loan from overseas – both based in Masterton, but this could change, according to the cardinal’s letter.

Dew said there was a “justice issue” in asking overseas priests to help when the number of parishioners per priest was far lower than in their own countries.

“The most likely scenarios in the near future, even for large parishes, are either one active priest, one active priest and a lay pastoral leader, or a lay pastoral leader with one or two retired priests in sacramental ministry.

“This means that most parishes will have lesser ministry hours by priests,” the cardinal said.

Hawken said the organisation of the parish would make it difficult for one priest to cover.

“It is the biggest parish in the diocese, geographically, impossible for one priest to cover – they would have to be a young man, with a very fast car or motorbike,” he said.

The idea of a centrally-located hub in Carterton, containing a church, presbytery and meeting rooms, had been raised.

“Geographically, it’s virtually the same distance from Masterton as it is from Carterton,” Hawken said.

The closure of Carterton’s St Mary’s church for structural reasons has had a profound effect on activities.

The usual weekly congregation has dropped from 50-60 to “low 30s”, since the move to the Richmond Funeral Home.

Families are also affected.

“We’ve got 17 kids waiting to be baptised. About the only venue large enough is the Carterton Events Centre which is not really suitable.”

Dew has urged parishes to think outside the box.

“Parishes need to be prepared to be radical in their thinking and discernment and prepared for the reactions that change inevitably brings.

“Letting go of the established order is necessary if we are to be well-prepared for the future and willing to free resources for mission, rather than simply maintaining what we have and what we do.”

If action was not taken, the church could be hamstrung by money problems.

“If we don’t take some action to work together in addressing the issues arising from the reduced availability of priests, earthquake resilience, too many churches for our mass count, amalgamation, and the synod outcomes, then as an archdiocese we face a future which will be impossible for our priests and lay pastoral leaders to sustain, and which for lay people will be dominated by fundraising for years to come.”