Pastoral administrators are earning acceptance throughout Diocese
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Last December, Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Schmieding was driving down Interstate 35 after a visit to her hometown of Westphalia, Iowa, when she noticed the town of Bethany.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
The pastoral administrators of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph: (seated) Franciscan Sister Mary Ann Schmieding, Deacon Ron Elliot; (standing) Sister of St. Joseph Helen Flemington, Margaret Lima and Joan Puthoff.
"I had a gut feeling that this would be a nice place to work," she recalled. "And two months later, Sister Jean (Beste, Diocesan director of planning and personnel) calls me."
Sister Schmieding will return to Bethany to stay as pastoral administrator responsible for Blessed Sacrament Parish in Bethany and St. Mary Mission in Cainsville.
Her appointment to lead the two faith communities effective July 1 makes Sister Schmieding the fifth active non-priest parish leader in the Diocese.
At a May 26 luncheon meeting, Sister Schmieding and her four colleagues - Margaret Lima of Guardian Angels Parish in Kansas City; Sister of St. Joseph Helen Flemington of St. Therese Little Flower Parish in Kansas City; Deacon Ron Elliott of St. Mary Parish in Higginsville; and Joan Putthoff of St. James Parish in Kansas City - said that the concept that a parish can thrive without a resident priest-pastor is gaining momentum.
In fact, said Sister Schmieding, she couldn't have felt more welcomed than during her Pentecost Sunday visit May 23 to the communities she would be leading.
"I found them to be very 'down-home' people - what you see is what you get," she said. "The people seemed to make it an extra point to talk to me and welcome me."
Sister Beste, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said that the change in leadership in Bethany and Cainsville became necessary in January, when Conception Abbey informed the Diocese that the Abbey could no longer supply a Benedictine monk to serve as resident pastor.
"In early March, I met with the faith communities and spoke to them about leadership in the future," Sister Beste said. "To my surprise, 99 percent of the people present were open to the change to a pastoral administrator. They were happy to know that 'the Diocese' was not going to close their parishes."
Sister Schmieding said she noticed the same feeling from the people of Bethany and Cainsville.
"The sense I got from the people is that they are glad someone is coming, that they would not be left alone," she said.
Under the new model, Sister Schmieding will handle the administrative and other roles of operating a parish, except sacramental roles that require a priest such as celebrating Mass and hearing Confessions. The Abbey will continue to provide the communities with priests to serve as sacramental ministers.
No two models of pastoral administrator leadership are exactly the same, as each are modified to fit the communities they serve. But the model that will be in place in Bethany and Cainsville will be similar to the model at St. James, where Putthoff serves as administrator and priests from the Society of the Precious Blood serve as sacramental ministers.
The three other parishes operate differently. Lima is a full-time administrator at Guardian Angels, which also has a full-time priest, Jesuit Father Glenn Mueller, serving as associate pastor.
Deacon Elliott is the full-time administrator at St. Mary, with Father Terrell Finnell, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lexington, serving as sacramental minister. As an ordained deacon, Deacon Elliott is also able to perform many sacramental functions, such as Baptisms, witnessing Matrimony, and presiding at funerals.
At St. Therese Little Flower, Sister Flemington is a full-time administrator and Father Don Farnan, pastor of St. Louis Parish, serves as sacramental minister.
Both Sister Flemington and Lima had the advantage of previously working on staff at the parishes they now lead. The other three administrators were new to their communities, but all five said their parishes quickly embraced a new model of leadership.
"The Holy Spirit is in this in a great way," said Deacon Elliott. "We just have to acknowledge that."
Sister Flemington said that the socially active St. Therese Little Flower Parish has blossomed because parishioners have assumed more responsibility for its success. Most particularly, the parishioners have made it part of the parish mission to revitalize its Blue Hills neighborhood, she said.
"The neighborhood issues have become a real focus for us," she said. "I felt a real pride within the parish because we were in a new model, and I experienced a real excitement in doing something new and different."
Putthoff, noting that four of the five pastoral administrators in the Diocese are women, said that the role has raised the profile of women in the Church.
"It says there is a place for women in the Church that has not been held by women before," Putthoff said.
Sister Schmieding said acceptance of a new model of parish leadership seems to be spreading throughout the Diocese. As she prepares to leave her present role as pastoral associate at Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Lee's Summit, she said that several parishioners have told her how excited they are for her.
"Even at a parish that still has a pastor and an associate pastor, they are excited that someone is going into this style of leadership," Sister Schmieding said. "It's quickly spreading in acceptance."