Angela Perez, Contributing Photographer

Nestled among the sights of Hillhouse Avenue, St. Mary’s Church looms over students rushing to class and visitors stopping for pictures. Just to its right is a smaller structure, the priory, where the Dominican Friars who staff St. Mary’s Church have lived for the last 135 years. Now, they are being ousted from the church and priory as part of a broader pastoral planning solution in New Haven. 

The pastoral planning solution aims to consolidate churches in certain areas within the Archdiocese of Hartford’s jurisdiction in order to pool resources more efficiently, particularly in areas where there are multiple churches with resources spread thin. In 2017, the Archdiocese of Hartford, the governing body of Catholic institutions in the Hartford and New Haven area, began implementing a merging solution in the Elm City. Now, the Archdiocese has begun the next phase of its plan –– it intends for St. Mary’s to serve as the Catholic center of New Haven. This coincides with a relatively recent shift in leadership at Saint Thomas More that suggests St. Mary’s and STM might be working more closely in the future.

The Archdiocese of Hartford will replace the outgoing friars with Dioscesan priests, who pertain to the Dioscesan order. The friars were asked to leave by Dec. 1, 2021, a date moved up from the originally announced Jan. 1 date. They were officially told of the plan to replace them in March. The rescheduling will allow the Dioscecan priests to staff the church during Christmas. The pastoral plan is to consolidate and unite churches and other Catholic institutions around the Elm City. The decision has come under fire due to the success of the Dominican friars during their time at St. Mary’s and the love many churchgoers have for them. 

“It’s been a great joy to be here the last six and a half years,” St. Mary’s Dominican Church Pastor John Paul Walker said. “And certainly among our parishioners are the Yale students. They have a special spot in my heart, so it’s been just a wonderful experience. I feel very blessed to have been here and certainly I wish all of the people of St. Mary’s in the Archdiocese the best as they get ready to begin this next step in the church’s life in the city.”

Walker spoke to the News in the sitting room of the priory, where the Dominican brotherhood eats, sleeps, studies and prays together. Dating back to the start of religious orders, each one has a “charism,” which encompasses the mission, vision and style of the order. Dominican friars are known for their intellectual charism. 

For Dominican friars, study makes up a significant part of their work –– earning a bachelor’s degree and being “capable of” taking on a graduate degree are two of the requirements for any Catholic interested in joining the order. Walker himself has five degrees: two bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and sacred theology, graduate work in environmental chemistry, a masters of divinity and a licentiate in sacred theology. 

“We’re devoted, in particular, to preaching and teaching,” Dominican Subprior Father Jordan Lenaghan — who will also be departing from St. Mary’s in December — said. “So we bring a strong intellectual bent to all of our assignments.” 

Walker pointed out that the brotherhood’s emphasis on education has helped attract Yale students. He added that these students tend to be inquisitive, which Friars — who are required to reach certain levels of higher education — are therefore better equipped to address.

The friars’ departure from St. Mary’s has been met with backlash and criticism among churchgoers. Archdiocese of Hartford posts on Facebook have been overrun with critical comments. KellyAnn Carpentier, one of the commenters, has been attending St. Mary’s since her return to faith in 2017. 

“To say that I’m heartbroken is an understatement,” Carpentier wrote to the News. “The Dominican Order brings to St. Mary’s something so special that it’s impossible to replicate with anyone else. As someone who has a strong passion for history and tradition, I don’t know that I will ever fully accept the changes that are about to happen… It’s possible to have a good experience at other parishes, but St. Mary’s with the Dominican friars is so incredibly special.”

The Friars were also popular among younger churchgoers. The young-adult church group Fratassi, which meets at St. Mary’s, wrote a statement acknowledging their sadness at the news of the Friars’ departure.

“We would not be in existence without their tireless work, both in our founding as well as in the countless hours spent in the confessionals, exposing the Blessed Sacrament, locking up the church basement after socials, traveling to area breweries for talks, or hiking in their full habits at our monthly and weekly events,” the group wrote in its statement. “No matter how busy or tired they were, they always made time for us and to get to know us. While we are deeply saddened by this change and may not agree with the final outcome, we understand and will feel more than any other generation the effects of the current shortages in the Archdiocese.” 

The Dominican Friars are not yet sure of where they will go next. In Walker’s official announcement on behalf of the friars, he noted that the group will decide their next steps in a meeting with the Dominican Province – the collection of all Dominican Friars within a certain geographical area – in June 2022. Neither Walker nor Lenaghan commented on where they would be between December 2021 and June 2022. 

St. Mary’s has managed to remain mostly independent from the Archdiocese due to its success and high retention rates with local churchgoers. For this same reason, it came as a shock to churchgoers when the removal of the friars, who are broadly considered to be a large factor in the church’s high retention rates, was announced. Mergers and consolidations tend to occur with churches that experience significant decline in attendance or revenue. 

In 2017, St. Mary’s merged with a nearby church, St. Joseph’s, after both reported dwindling numbers. From 2010-2015, St. Mary’s experienced a 24.3 percent decrease in attendees, while St. Joseph’s lost 71.9 percent. Despite being viewed as a success within New Haven’s dwindling Catholic population since then, Archdiocesan Archbishop Leonard Blair told the New Haven Register that only 400 households attend St. Mary’s regularly, which he noted is near the lowest 15 percent of the Archdiocese. Blair claimed in the article that the St. Mary’s households decreased from 989 in 2010 to the 400 reported now. The Archdiocese’s report signed by Blair in 2017, however, states that St. Mary’s numbers in 2010 were at 502 households. 

The Archdiocese did not respond to several requests for comments from the News.

“It’s not like some huge, thriving parish that I’m closing,” Blair told the Register. “It’s part of the same challenges that others are facing, and it has to be part of the solution that we’re facing.”

Ryan Lerner, Saint Thomas More Catholic Chaplain and Archdiocesan Chancellor Father, noted that “change is always difficult,” but reaffirmed his support for the unification of resources and communities in New Haven. 

Before Lerner assumed the role of Chaplain, priest Bob Beloin held the role for 22-years as his sole profession. Lerner works with both the Archdioceses and Saint Thomas More. Lerner noted that the relationship between STM and St. Mary’s could be nurtured through events hosted together, as well as mission and social justice initiatives led together in the future.

STM falls under the Archdiocese of Hartford’s regional jurisdiction. Since its founding in 1922, the center has remained largely independent from the Archdiocese and St. Mary’s. STM’s independence can largely be attributed to the fact that it is wealthy enough to not require outside funding. The Golden Center was named after Thomas Golden Jr. ’51 in thanks to his generous donations to STM, including his pledge to donate 75 percent of his estate, or $25 million, whichever was greater. This total is in contrast to the nearly $215,000 deficit the National Catholic Register reported

“At the end of the day, we’re all part of the one body of Christ, which I think sometimes we forget when we get into the thick of these pastoral planning moves,” Lerner said. “There’s always opportunities when we bring together the whole church to pool our resources in a way that serves you know, common good in the people of God.”

The St. Mary’s Priory is located at 5 Hillhouse Ave. 

Correction, Nov. 4: The News amended a previous version of the article that stated STM and St. Mary’s would share financial resources.

Ángela Pérez is City Editor of the YDN. She was a former beat reporter, covering City Hall and Women's Volleyball. She was a former editor and writer for the WKND desk. She is from Puerto Rico and plans to major in Architecture.