As the parish of St. Walter Roman Catholic Church prepares for its final months, church leaders and the congregation are coping with sadness and preparing for their final chapter.
The Archdiocese of Chicago announced on March 9 that effective July 1, St. Walter Church, 11722 S. Oakley Ave., will merge with the parish of St. Benedict Church, in Blue Island, and St. Peter Claver Mission, in Robbins.
The new parish will hold regular Masses at St. Benedict, 2339 York St., and it will operate under a new name, with one pastor and one pastoral team.
Monsignor Dennis Lyle, pastor of St. Benedict, will be the pastor.
Archdiocese officials previously announced in January that St. Walter and St. Benedict elementary schools would merge starting with the next school year and said the parishes “may be united.”
Now, the parishes are officially merging.
The pastor of St. Walter, the Rev. Jim Mezydlo, said he is worried about not just longtime parishioners, but people who recently joined the congregation.
“Some of them have come here because their parish before us closed,” Mezydlo said. “So, now it’s that same situation again, which is a tough thing.”
Mezydlo said the reaction from St. Walter parishioners has been “one of deep sadness.” He said the news came as “a little bit of a surprise,” as he thought the parish might have more time.
A month ago, he accepted an offer to become dean of an archdiocese deanery, which is a region consisting of multiple parishes. Mezydlo will turn 70 this year, which is the retirement age for priests.
Under the merger between St. Walter and St. Benedict schools, St. Walter will host lower levels, and St. Benedict will host the upper levels.
For parish activities, St. Walter Church will not host regular Sunday Masses but may be still be used for school Masses, funerals and other special events. Mezydlo said he had hoped St. Walter would have been allowed to hold one Sunday Mass.
St. Peter Claver’s Gospel Mass will be incorporated into the services at St. Benedict, and St. Peter Clever Church will remain available for various activities and events.
Sacramental records for the parishes will be maintained at St. Benedict Church.
For the new name of the church, parish members will provide input and submit three to five options to Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago.
In a letter to the parish of St. Walter, Mezydlo said he has had numerous conversations with Lyle and knows that when the unification takes place “he will be a very good pastor.”
Mezydlo said he told the congregation at a recent Mass “not to lose faith as a Catholic.”
“That’s very, very important,” Mezydlo said. “And, [I said] that our faith as a Catholic will help guide us and give us strength to move forward in whatever direction God calls us to go.”
St. Walter, St. Benedict and St. Peter Claver are being united through the archdiocese’s Renew My Church plan. Other parishes under the plan include St. Donatus, in Blue Island, and St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr, in Posen. Officials said St. Donatus will now join the St. Christopher and St. Damian grouping, moving further west, and St. Donatus will remain in its current structure.
According to officials, which grouping’s feedback and discernment team, made up of representatives from each parish, met to review parish, school and church structures, then submitted feedback to the Archdiocesan Standards and Recommendations Commission.
Cupich discussed the commission’s recommendations with auxiliary bishops and the Presbyteral Council and decided to merge St. Walter, St. Benedict and St. Peter Claver.
St. Walter School has experienced enrollment and financial problems in recent years, and the archdiocese nearly closed the school in early 2019 before a fundraiser brought in the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to remain open.
Mezydlo said no official farewell celebration has been scheduled as the parish must first conduct its Easter services while coping with the pandemic.
He compared the closing of St. Walter Church to the death of a loved one. It will take time, he said, for people to cope.
“We’re just gradually working our way through it,” Mezydlo said, “the best way we can right now.”