As diocese closes 33 churches

Hilltowns mourn loss of St. Bernadette’s

BERNE — Congregants at St. Bernadette’s Church in Berne were distraught to learn this week that their home church is slated to close, but they are filled with hope for the future.

“It’s devastating,” said Theresa Casal, a lector at St. Bernadette’s. “It’s a very close-knit family there.”

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, announced Saturday the closure of 33 churches in the 14-county diocese. Most of the churches were in cities like Albany, Schenectady, Troy, and Cohoes. A few, like St. Bernadette’s, were in rural areas.

Sister Mary Lou Liptak, the parish life director for St. Bernadette’s, said that the reason for the closure was “not financial. The lack of priests and also attendance, and the diminished community” were all cited in the recommendations, she said. St. Bernadette’s has 200 members, she said, of which 100 come to worship at any given time.

Casal and her husband moved to East Berne from Watervliet and began attending St. Bernadette’s three years ago.

“We were welcomed in immediately,” she said. “It’s a terrific worship place. It really is.”

Casal spent 11 years in Watervliet.

“I never knew anybody’s name there,” she said. The smaller church in Berne helped them “get to know the people quite quickly,” she said.

Casal and her husband plan to attend St. Bernadette’s sister church, St. Lucy’s Church, in Altamont, when their church closes at the end of 2010.

“We’re going into it hopeful it will be a positive thing. Others share that hope,” Casal said.

It helps that the two churches already have the same staff and programs, like their youth program, she said.

“We’re a combined community,” Casal said. “It’s really just the place where we worship that has changed. It’s not the family.”

Liptak, the parish life director for both St. Bernadette’s and St. Lucy’s Church, said “We’re going to rework our infrastructure. Instead of two communities, we become one.”

Called to BE One

Ken Goldfarb, the communications director for the Albany diocese, described the two-year process, Called to BE One, which influenced the bishop’s decision.

Planning groups were formed with two or more neighboring parishes, with a parish life director and five parishioners from each church as part of the group. The planning groups submitted recommendations for the diocesan consolidation by June of last year.

“Ninety-percent of the recommendations from the planning groups were adopted by the bishop in his decision,” Goldfarb said.

“We’ve closed probably 40 churches in the diocese since Bishop Hubbard has been in this position,” he said. Hubbard became bishop in 1977. Most of the closed buildings found “new and appropriate uses,” Goldfarb said.

Usually, another denomination purchases a church building. At other times, a community service can be housed in a closed church. On rare occasions, he said, a church may not be used, as in the case of an Albany church for which the plan by the developer who purchased it fell through.

“Religious objects are retained by the successor parish or diocese,” Goldfarb said. Successor parishes are the neighboring parishes which, after a closing, encompass the former parish, he said.

“It would be helpful and appropriate for many people to attend the successor parish to help [provide] a linkage to the past for the new parish they attend,” Goldfarb said.

People walked to church in their own neighborhoods 150 years ago, he said. Now, people are not discouraged to go outside their neighborhoods, particularly with the abundance of transportation possibilities, he said.

Mission church

Liptak said that hers was a parish with two worship sites because of the 10-mile distance between them.

She was a pastoral associate at St. Bernadette’s, starting 28 years ago, she said. Twelve years ago, Hubbard asked her to be the parish life director at both St. Lucy’s and St. Bernadette’s. Father Paul Smith is the sacramental minister for both churches, she said.

Casal said she was told that priests in neighboring parishes will start rotating among churches to get to know the areas better. She said that, in the future, she believes that all Masses will be consolidated. Recently, priests from Voorheesville and Westmere celebrated Masses in Altamont.

Liptak said that the planning group had recommended that, eventually, St. Bernadette’s would close.

Goldfarb said that the closing of the church was according to the planning group’s recommendations, but that the timing may have been changed.

Margery Smith Garry, a self-described “middle-aged elderly” member of St. Bernadette’s, said that most of her fellow communicants were upset about the decision to close the church.

“That’s a big problem. I’m having difficulty, too,” she said. “We thought we would still be tied with [St. Lucy’s], but still have our church, with all masses at St. Lucy’s,” Garry said. “It’s a beautiful little church. We’re a community.”

St. Bernadette’s was formed after two summer churches at Warner’s Lake and East Berne grew, Garry said.

“They called them the summer chapels,” Liptak said. St. Lucy’s started St. Bernadette’s as a mission church then, she said.

“Traditionally, the mission church couldn’t stand on its own,” Liptak said.

There were 100 families attending the churches in 1962, Garry said. The members thought they could provide religious instruction to the children across the street from the Berne school, instead of busing them away, she said.

Garry said that she does not know where she will attend Mass when the church closes in two years.

“This is a church that is seven miles from my home,” she said. “My children have taught me, when the weather is like this, you don’t drive, and I’ve listened to them,” Garry, a retired physician, said about winter conditions.

“What are we going to do about our seniors?” Casal asked. “We have parishioners older than [Garry] that still come.”

“If somebody needed a ride,” Casal continued, “we’d see that they got to a service. With the family atmosphere at St. Bernadette’s, we look out for one another.”

The parishioners did check on each other during the recent snows and cold snap, Casal said.

“It was heartwarming,” she said. “It’s a family. We do more than just worship together.” Activities at the church include coffee times after worship, potlucks and advent wreath-making, and study groups, she said.

“It’s not all about praying, it’s a lot of fun. It’s not strictly a prayer service. It’s coming together,” Casal said.


“We’re going to work on a plan to come together with St. Lucy’s,” Liptak said. All committees and services will be merged, she said. The work St. Bernadette’s did with the Hilltowns Resource Center, a Catholic Charities satellite, will continue, she said, from St. Lucy’s.

“We’ll continue with everything we do…and we’ll travel to get to Mass,” she said.

Goldfarb said that the bishop appointed a task force to be sure that services to the community will continue, even in areas where churches are closed or merged. The continuity was part of the criteria required when the planning process began, he said.

“If anybody can pull it off, it’s St. Bernadette’s,” Liptak said.

“It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming,” Casal said. “You kind of always hope, ‘Not me, not me, not us.’ But, it is what it is. I’ll accept whatever change it is.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Helderberg Lake Community Association President Tom McQuade told The Enterprise this week that, after the association had its tax-district proposal rejected by the Berne Town Board, it’s hoping to secure funding for dam repairs through the New York State Environmental Bond Act, which will be voted on by state residents in November.

  • KNOX — Voices from the past called out to the present in Knox on Sunday.

  • Andrew Gibson, of Westerlo, pleaded guilty to reckless homicide after killing Berne resident Lisa Sperry in a drunk driving accident, but he failed to show up to his sentencing in February this year, having been out on bail.

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