Six Stearns County parishes in the Diocese of St. Cloud that have long been served by Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey are coming together in a new way.
On Feb. 23, an official announcement was made establishing two new clusters of independent parishes, each of which will be served by one Benedictine pastor with the assistance of other Benedictine priests.
Effective July 1, Father Matthew Luft will serve as pastor of St. James Parish in Jacobs Prairie and Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Richmond, while remaining pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Cold Spring. He will be assisted by Father Cletus Connors and Father Isaiah Frederick, who will serve the cluster as parochial vicars.
Father Edward Vebelun will serve as pastor of Seven Dolors Parish in Albany and St. Anthony Parish in St. Anthony, while continuing as pastor of St. Martin Parish in St. Martin. He will be assisted by Father Julius Beckermann, who will serve the cluster as parochial vicar.
Long history of service
For more than 150 years, the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey have been serving in churches in the Diocese of St. Cloud — even before it was formally organized into a diocese.
Last October, Abbot John Klassen asked Prior Bradley Jenniges, along with Father Matthew Luft and Father Edward Vebelun, to create a plan for the future as to how Benedictine monks could continue to serve in parishes for the next 10 to 15 years.
Both Bishop Donald Kettler and Abbot John recognized “the need for priests serving in parishes to find a balance in order to maintain their health and for parishes to recognize that their future vibrancy is in their hands,” said Father Luft, who was part of two task forces formed to look at how to best to serve these parishes in the future.
In addition to looking at the overall health of the Benedictine monks who are able to serve as pastors in parishes, they also looked at their vocational roles.
“First, we are called to live as members of the monastic community,” Father Matthew explained. “Like the diocese, our numbers are returning to pre-World War II vocation boom numbers, and we don’t have the personnel to be pastors of individual parishes like we did 40 years ago.
“Further, men coming to our community do not want to live and minister alone — they come to seek God with the help of many brothers. We needed to find ways that we could minister together while realizing that we only have three to five monks in the next decade or so who will be able to serve as pastors in parishes,” he said.
Although there are a number of monks who are willing to assist in parishes, they are not all able to serve full time because they have other work at St. John’s University, St. John’s Preparatory School, Liturgical Press or within the abbey itself.
“The presenting question for us was this: How do we honor our commitment to the parishes in which we have a long history while also being true to our monastic vocation?” Father Luft said.
After careful prayer and discernment, final reports of both task forces — one at the abbey and one with the diocese — recommended the clustering “to maintain a healthy balance for priests while maintaining the individual identity of the faith-filled communities,” according to a letter to affected parishioners from Abbot Klassen and Bishop Kettler.
“We value the individual parishes and schools where we serve and we want to see them flourishing in the next century,” Father Luft added.
“We want to work with our deacons and lay ministers in building vibrant parishes in Stearns County,” he said. “We want to have the best schools filled to capacity. We want to foster the smaller parishes where community thrives. We want to support the larger parishes where a greater number of ministries are possible. In short, we want to continue walking this journey together, led by Christ, to the heavenly Kingdom in this local church.”
Father Vebelun said his “own experience working within a cluster is that both communities can become stronger by cooperating, and that it is less burdensome to clergy than people might imagine.”
“I am excited to be working within a team of Benedictine priests in my cluster,” he said.
“I am also hopeful that we can slowly create more connections between St. John’s Abbey and the wonderful communities that surround us, because the new alignment will demand more interaction from a greater number of monks. Of course, it takes a good bit of time and conscious energy to move it into a workable configuration for everyone.”
As part of the transition process, open meetings were held in the areas the parishes are located as an opportunity for the communities to ask questions. Bishop Kettler has asked each cluster to form a “transition team” to help in bringing the communities together.
Members of the transition teams include trustees, parish pastoral council members and other members of the parish. The team will work through some of the challenges like setting a Mass schedule, how to share resources while maintaining the individuality of each parish, how to communicate through the bulletin, website and other means.
“We realize that change is difficult,” Father Luft said. “We simply ask people to pray for the parishes, for the staffs and for each other. We also need to pray for and foster priestly vocations within our parishes so that there will be more priests to serve the People of God.”