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Consolidation of Roman Catholic Parishes Brings Hope for the Future

Immaculate Conception Church becomes St. Martin of Tours


By Colleen Gundlach

On June 29, the Immaculate Conception Church in Norfolk underwent not only a change in name but a change in structure. When Catholic Archbishop Leonard P. Blair announced in May that the number of parishes in the archdiocese would be reduced, the fear among some Catholics was of loss of fellowship, community and a building they had worked long and hard to maintain. For the Norfolk parish, however, the restructure promises to bring renewal and a new sense of community within the church.

The Norfolk parish has joined with St. Joseph’s in North Canaan and St. Mary’s in Lakeville to form a new parish, St. Martin of Tours. The new name, chosen by Archbishop Blair, is a reference to a fourth-century Hungarian-born man who was instrumental in converting Roman culture in rural France to Trinitarian Christianity. Martin was a hermit who wanted to put an end to persecution of the church and was one of the founders of monasticism. Legend has it that while serving as an unwilling Roman soldier, Martin cut his cloak in half to share it with a homeless man who was cold. Because of his concern for the less fortunate, Martin was named the patron saint of beggars.

The new parish will be lead by Norfolk’s pastor, Father Iain Highet, who has led the local church since 2013. He is enthusiastic about the change. “The new parish restructuring is the result of a two-year pastoral planning process throughout the Archdiocese of Hartford,” he says. “We had to change in order to continue to serve the needs of the people and meet the situation we now have. Think of it like pruning a tree so that it can and will bear fruit.”

As far back as the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was concerned that basic moral values were changing. Pope John XXIII feared that a disintegration of the Judeo-Christian values had begun that would only grow worse over the years. “Catholics began to think there was no need to go to church,” says Fr. Iain. “The context had changed so dramatically—that context within which Christians had been living was not there. Recently Pope Francis has suggested that ‘we live not so much in an age of change, but in the change of an age.’” With the church attendees growing older and the young people straying away, “we felt the need to examine how we could do it better,“ he says. “What we are doing now is just the beginning of what will be a much longer process.”

All three of the physical church buildings will remain open for now, with Fr. Iain the pastor of all. He was already leading the Norfolk and North Canaan parishes, and now Lakeville will be added to his charge. “There will be changes in schedules, but while the exact times of the Masses in each church may vary, the parishioners will always have a place to go in one or other of the churches,” he says.

A transition team has been set up with members from all three parishes to help with issues that may arise during this period. Even before the mergers were announced, the Canaan and Norfolk churches were collaborating in a Community Kitchen project that feeds 100 to 150 people at each meal. Two teams, made up of people from both parishes, cook and serve the meal, free to anyone who needs it, whether for socialization or for nourishment. “The beauty of this project,” says Fr. Iain, “is that it has helped to break down barriers between the two towns and has assisted those in need at the same time.” It appears that St. Martin of Tours–the patron saint of the downtrodden–is an appropriate name for a parish with a heart for helping others.

The parish will open their Norfolk doors on Saturday, August 12, from 1 to 5 p.m. for their Moved by Mercy Picnic, a special town-wide celebration, open to everyone. It will be held on the church lawn, complete with a dunk tank, pony rides, face painting and lots of good food. Music will be provided by Erin Og and the Irish Dancers, and Mass will be celebrated under the tent outdoors at 5 p.m. There is no charge for the picnic, but visitors are encouraged to bring nonperishable food items to donate to local food banks.

Photo, top, of Norfolk’s newly renamed St. Martin of Tours church, by Bruce Frisch.

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