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'Extern' priests serving in Vermont

There was a time when the Diocese of Burlington sent priests to serve in missions in the developing world with groups including Maryknoll and The Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle.
But as the clergy shortage became more acute in Vermont, parishes here began to welcome more and more priests who were born outside the United States; in effect roles were reversed and Vermont became “mission territory.”
Of the 74 priests in full-time ministry in Vermont, there are currently 22 “extern” priests serving here with permission of their home bishop or religious order.
The extern priests serve at 41 churches and the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.
“Without their assistance, we would not be able to provide pastoral coverage to a large number of churches,” said Msgr. John McDermott, vicar general for the Diocese of Burlington. “Their presence is essential at this time in the life of the Diocese.”
Father Romanus Igweonu was ordained for the Diocese of Abakaliki in his native Nigeria and served there as a parochial vicar, pastor, teacher, principal and chaplain before coming to the United States to study in 2004, earning advanced degrees in education. An educational specialist, he worked in special education in Pittsburg before then-Burlington Bishop Salvatore R. Matano invited him to serve in the Diocese of Burlington.
Though he also looked into educational positions, Father Igweonu chose to come to Vermont “because my first vocation is as a priest; I have to pay homage to the Church.” Education, he said, is his “second career.”
He arrived in Vermont in 2006 and served churches in Fairfax, Milton, Ludlow and Proctorsville before his current assignment as administrator of St. Bridget and St. Stanislaus Kostka churches in West Rutland and St. Dominic in Proctor. 
“When I came to Burlington, I met life. I met love. I met brotherliness and unity and acceptance,” he said. “I came as a missionary to Vermont, but I feel one with the presbyterate of Vermont,” which makes him feel more of a diocesan priest than a missionary. “As imperfect as I am, they treat me as a brother.”
The growing numbers of African-born clergy and religious ministering in the United States are at the vanguard of an important moment in both the U.S. and worldwide Catholic Church, said Jesuit Father Allan Deck, a teacher of theology and Latino studies at Loyola Maryknoll University in Los Angeles.
"The Church is growing in Asia, in Latin America and most especially in Africa," he said. "So at this moment in time and as we move into the future, the life of the universal Church, the leadership of the universal Church -- and all the hard work that we need to do to evangelize -- more and more has to be assumed by up-and-coming groups, and one of those groups is the Catholic faithful of the various countries of Africa.”
Father Deck served from 2008 to 2012 as the first executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.
The priest called the influx of foreign-born ministers "a globalized priesthood, a globalized religious."
Father Maria Lazar, pastor of St. Charles Parish in Bellows Falls, was ordained a priest of the Heralds of Good News order. In his native India he was a parochial vicar, pastor and Catholic school administrator.
“One fine morning my superior [in the religious order] called me and said to prepare to go to Vermont,” he recalled. “Vermont was not on the map according to me back then,” he added with a smile.
But he arrived in Vermont in 2009 with another member of his order. “I didn’t know anything of Vermont,” he said. “I had no idea about the climate, the culture or the people.”
And though he thought he could speak English, he realized he did not speak it fluently. In fact, at first “it was not distinguishable,” he said.
Acclimating to a new place can be a challenge for a missionary priest, but Father Lazar did not balk; the object of his order is to train and supply priests where they are needed. “I’m a minister to the people. I cannot be hiding in a room,” he said, noting that in seminary he was told he could be sent “anywhere” so he would have to “bloom where you are planted.”
He has served churches in St. Albans, Barre and Rutland.
Asked if there is a priest shortage in his home diocese, Father Igweonu said, “yes and no.” Many parishes still need pastors because of an expansion program, so though there are many young men going to the seminary, “there are not enough priests because of the expansion,” he said. “No amount of priests is enough because the Church is growing in Africa.”
His plans to stay depend on the wishes of his home bishop and the bishop of Burlington. “I see my life as a priest anywhere I’m called to serve,” he said.
Father Lazar is committed to the Diocese of Burlington for 10 years, and when that is complete, he would like to go home to India, but he will, in obedience, go where he is needed. “I said ‘yes’ to God when I entered the seminary and when I was ordained. I should continue to [say ‘yes’] until my last breath.”
Father Julian Asucan, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Montpelier at North American Martyrs Church in Marshfield, was ordained in 2000 for the Diocese of Talibon in the Philippines where he assisted the bishop and was a parochial vicar and pastor before coming to Vermont in 2008 after learning the Diocese of Burlington needed priests.
“I wanted the experience of knowing what was beyond the borders of my country and to know the universal Church,” he said. “What we do there is the same thing we do here – celebrate the sacraments.”
He has served parishes in Bradford, Hardwick, Fairfax, Milton and Colchester.
He never thought of the United States as “mission territory,” but he understands the need now because of fewer American-born priests.
“For the Church to continue to exist, you have to have your own priests in the Diocese,” he said. “What if other Dioceses [and religious orders] did not send their priests?”
Father Lazar hopes that he will inspire young Vermont men to heed the call to priesthood. “Mission priests cannot stay here forever,” he said. “Mission priests are coming and serving and then they go to different places. Promoting local vocations is the only solution [to the clergy shortage], something every [Catholic] should work on.”
--Catholic News Service contributed to this story.
--Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
  • Published in Diocesan

New life for former churches

When a church closes – no matter what the reason – it’s obviously difficult for its members. Sometimes former church buildings become a parish center when a new church is built or serve a larger, merged parish as a social center. Many former churches have been sold, experiencing a renaissance as a gallery, a workshop, a home or an artist studio. Some, alas, are torn down.
But as with any home, the former church building does not hold the memories. Rather, the community that worshipped there keeps those memories close; the individuals who received sacraments there treasure their recollections of their experiences of grace there.
Among the uses for former churches in the Diocese of Burlington are:
St. Benedict Church, North Hero
The GreenTARA Gallery is located in the former St. Benedict Church in the center of North Hero. Diane Gayer bought the former church last year and renovated much of it over six months. It is now an art gallery with coffee/tea bar and artist studios plus workshop space. The former church was built as a general store in 1823 and situated on the waterfront in the village of North Hero. It was converted to a Catholic church in 1888-89 and moved to its current location in 1947. It closed as a church in 2008. “Because of the 24-foot-by-50-foot spatial dimensions, the building exhibits the qualities of the Golden Ratio,” Gayer said. “The high vaulted ceiling brings in a lot of soft daylight, which we are careful to use as direct sunlight on art can be destructive.” Both the wood dais (where the sanctuary had been in the church) and the choir loft offer areas for larger art or activities or to create a quieter space under the overhang of the loft. “Additionally the church was quite simple in its details due to the time it was built and converted; this in turn allows it to make a very attractive art gallery,” Gayer said. The location provides lovely views of Lake Champlain to the east, and west to expansive fields of corn and open sky. The name GreenTARA keeps a spiritual nature to the business and is in keeping with the much needed healing in the world, Gayer said. Green Tara is the Tibetan goddess of compassion and enlightened activity. Additionally the activities, from the mix of exhibits and guest talks to workshops on green roofs and emphasis on local food, all have art and environment at their core.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church, North Pownal
James Gardiner has transformed the former Our Lady of Lourdes Church in North Pownal into his home and workshop for his business, Atmosphyre – a bathroom vanity and sink manufacturer. The designer said the space fits his needs perfectly “because when you are making stuff from nothing you want to be inspired.” He does plan to replace some of the colored windows with clear glass because he is “starving for natural light.” He has replaced the pews with a variety of tools, but the space still has the feel of a church. “The building was completely designed and built … to make a connection between man and God,” he said. “People are still mindful of God when they enter the building.”
Sacred Heart Church, Bennington
Sacred Heart Church in Bennington – located within Sacred Heart School – closed when the parish merged with St. Francis de Sales Parish and the new Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Parish took up residence in the larger, freestanding church. The space on the ground floor of the school once dedicated to the church became the school’s multipurpose room where music lessons take place, students eat, theatrical shows are performed and the school community assembles.
Sacred Heart Church, Bellows Falls
The former Sacred Heart Church in Bellows Falls, located just up the street from St. Charles Church, became a parish center after it closed. Now the Sacred Heart St. Charles Education and Social Center, it has classrooms for religious education, a soup kitchen to serve the needy and a parish hall for various functions. The building remains “very sentimental” to parishioners who once were members of Sacred Heart Church, said Herald of Good News Father Maria Lazar, administrator of St. Charles Church.
St. Columban Church, Arlington
The cornerstone of the former St. Columban Church in Arlington was brought from Mucross Abbey in Ireland; the church was named after the 7th-century Irish missionary abbot who founded monastic centers in France, Switzerland and Italy that became centers of evangelization and learning. When the church closed in the 1960s, the congregation moved to its new St. Margaret Mary Church. The former St. Columban’s was once home to a Norman Rockwell museum (the Saturday Evening Post artist lived in Arlington for 14 years) and most recently an artist’s studio and gallery.

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
  • Published in Diocesan
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