Dominicans to Depart From Iconic Connecticut Parish, But Questions Over Archdiocese’s Decision Remain
The Archdiocese of Hartford says it needs control of St. Mary’s Church and priory to serve as the hub of New Haven’s new ‘municipal model.’ Local Catholics and parishioners say something doesn’t add up.
In an era of parochial decay in New England, St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Connecticut, has been something of an exception to the rule.
The downtown parish where parish priest Blessed Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882 and presently lies entombed, St. Mary’s is also a source of new life today. Drawn by reverent worship and a vibrant parish community, St. Mary’s is a haven for young families hoping to raise their kids Catholic in one of the most secular states in the country, some coming from as far as an hour away. In recent years, the parish has even reported twice as many baptisms as funerals — a difficult-to-come-by statistic for any parish in the Northeast United States.
Essentially surrounded by Yale University, St. Mary’s is described by local Catholics as the heart of liturgical, social and intellectual life in the mid-sized Connecticut city.
But now, parishioners and other local Catholics worry that the success story of St. Mary’s is in danger of abruptly ending — ironically, due to an archdiocesan plan to rejuvenate Catholic life in a city that’s seen its Catholic population decline from 70,000 in the 1930s to 10,000 today.
As part of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s pastoral pruning that began in 2017, the Archdiocese of Hartford is moving forward with plans to consolidate New Haven’s parishes into a single “municipal model” — and have chosen St. Mary’s to be its hub. That decision will involve the archdiocese assuming pastoral control of the parish and housing the diocesan priests who will serve the Catholics of New Haven in its priory — critically, displacing the Dominicans who have served the parish for over 135 years, and who many argue have been vital to its recent success.
Originally slated for Jan. 1, the archdiocese recently announced the transition would be pushed up to Dec. 1.
“I’m not approaching this from trying to get rid of the Dominicans — far from it,” Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair recently told the New Haven Register. “I’m approaching it for pastoral planning, from the point of view of a pastoral plan for the needs of today.”
Concern for the Present and Future
Archdiocesan spokesman David Elliott told the Register that the archdiocese’s decision was rooted in “the spiritual wellness of the faithful and the vitality of our parishes,” not “nostalgia for a bygone era of American Catholicism.”
But in speaking to New Haven Catholics most affected by the decision, the Register found that their concern about losing the Dominicans’ presence had little to do with preserving some kind of historical legacy. Instead, they believe that by pushing out one of America’s most vibrant religious orders, especially at a time when diocesan priest numbers in the United States, and especially the Archdiocese of Hartford, are dwindling, the archdiocese is jeopardizing the spiritual wellbeing of St. Mary’s present and future.
“A completely avoidable disaster for my parish and archdiocese and a milestone in a decline of Catholicism in the northeast,” tweeted St. Mary’s parishioner and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, shortly after the news went public in early October.
Peter Wolfgang isn’t a parishioner of St. Mary’s, but as executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, he knows the community there well.
Wolfgang fully embraces the Archdiocese of Hartford’s efforts to have its priests live together, as well as the need to consolidate parishes. He was sad, but understanding, when his home parish of St. Margaret of Scotland in Waterbury, was closed in 2017.
But he says that situation was different. St. Margaret’s was a dying parish, while “St. Mary’s under the Dominicans was a success story,” he said, his use of the past tense revealing his concern for the future. “A vibrant, dynamic, orthodox parish in the archdiocese,” and a “hub for the New Evangelization.”
“You know the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’” he asked rhetorically. “In this case, they took something that was working well and they may have broken it.”
A ‘Leaven’ in the Wider Community
Those concerned with the archdiocese’s plan say that the Dominicans’ distinct charism for intellectual formation, the orthodoxy of their preaching and orthopraxy of their liturgies and the availability afforded by their communal life, have all been essential elements of the recent dynamism of St. Mary’s — a dynamism that has also spilled over into wider New Haven County.
Wolfgang describes the parish as “a leaven far beyond the confines” of its own boundaries, and spoke of a “whole ecosystem” in south central Connecticut with its roots at St. Mary’s. He, for instance, sends his young kids to St. Mary’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, despite living a 30-minute drive away.
Julie-Anne Buonasora also isn’t a parishioner at St. Mary’s. But as the team leader of Frassati New Haven, one of New Haven County’s only Catholic young adult offerings, she describes the Dominicans, who serve as the apostolate’s chaplains, as “central” to the success of the apostolate — involved in everything from pulling off Theology on Taps to offering a monthly Holy Hour with confession.
“Without the Dominicans, we fear for the future of Frassati, to be quite frank,” said Buonasora, adding that the Dominicans also provide the priestly support for the New Haven chapter of Crossroads for Christ, another young adult initiative, by hosting weekly Holy Hours at the parish.
Another benefit that the Dominicans — who typically have six friars in residence at the priory with three assigned full-time to the parish — have been able to provide to the wider New Haven community is the plethora of liturgical opportunities popular among Catholics who work in New Haven, from two daily Mass times to confession six days a week. The Dominicans even offer a 24/7 “emergency confessional” for archdiocesan priests, and provide spiritual direction to several local clergy and religious.
Buonasora says she has benefited immensely from the Dominicans’ commitment to making the sacraments widely available — especially the 5 pm weekday Mass, which she says is the only one offered at that time in the whole city. She hopes that the archdiocesan priests who replace the friars at St. Mary’s “will be able to do what the Dominicans did.”
“But they’ve got very big shoes to fill.”
In his statements defending his decision to remove the Dominicans from St. Mary’s, Archbishop Leonard Blair hasn’t focused much on the friars’ impact in greater New Haven. Instead, he has tended to highlight what he considers signs of decline at the parish under their leadership.
For instance, in comments to the New Haven Register, Archbishop Blair pointed out that the number of registered families at St. Mary’s has dropped from 989 in 2010, to just over 400 today. He also cited an operating deficit of nearly $214,000 at the parish, both points that have been repeated in other archdiocesan communications.
“It’s not like some huge, thriving parish that I’m closing,” Blair told the New Haven 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.”
The story appears more complicated, however, when considering recent yearly figures provided by the parish at the Register’s request.
For instance, in typical years over the past six-year stretch under the leadership of Dominican Father John Paul Walker as pastor, St. Mary’s experienced steady growth. The number of registered families climbed from 407 in 2015 to 433 in 2017, before jumping to 577 when St. Mary’s merged with nearby St. Joseph’s parish in 2018. Registered families fell back down to 400 only after the parish experienced atypical setbacks — the partial collapse of the roof in 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, both of which shuttered the church for much of those years.
October counts for average Sunday Mass attendance tell a similar story: a steady yearly increase from 667 in 2015 to 799 in 2017, up to 886 with the merger in 2018, before falling below 600 in the abnormal years of 2019 and 2020.
St. Mary’s finances also suggest something different than a simplistic case of decline. The parish had budget surpluses of about $120,000 in both 2015 and 2016. In fact, the parish only started to run a deficit after it merged with St. Joseph’s — notably, at the archdiocese’s invitation — absorbing some of that parish’s financial challenges in the process.
Father Walker said it was always an open question of whether the two churches could be administered as one parish, something that the Dominicans had been at least willing to try. But he says the unforeseeable events of the past two years, coupled now with the friars’ upcoming departure, prevented anyone from getting an accurate picture.
“We barely had a year to see what the new normal was.”
Dominicans and Yalies
St. Mary’s parishioners are also quick to point out that numbers like registered parishioners don’t tell the full story of their community. Given the parish’s proximity to Yale, many attendees at a Sunday Mass or parish event are often from the university, usually graduate students and their families, who may take part in parish life for a few years while living in New Haven without ever registering.
But it’s not only the proximity that appeals to students of the Ivy League school — it’s also the Dominicans’ intellectual focus. The Dominicans don’t have formal campus ministry responsibilities at Yale like they do at Dartmouth and Brown. But even so, Yalies have often sought out the friars. Several faculty and students are included among the 50 people who have been received into the Catholic Church through St. Mary’s RCIA program since 2016.
Kevin Gallagher, a 2011 graduate of Yale who frequently attended Mass at St. Mary’s, said the Dominicans have had something to offer that’s not necessarily found at St. Thomas More, the archdiocesan-sponsored chapel and campus center.
“What was missing — and at Yale I think this is kind of a problem — was the sense of Catholicism as an intellectual tradition,” said Gallagher. “The Dominicans were more focused on that.”
Wolfgang says the impending departure of the Order of Preachers from New Haven is a huge blow to outreach efforts on Yale’s campus.
“You have kids walking around New Haven right now in jeans and T-shirts who are going to be future presidents, Supreme Court justices, secretaries of state, and the Dominicans were perfectly situated to evangelize them.”
St. Mary’s parishioners aren’t only upset about the archdiocese’s decision. They’re also upset about how the decision was made and how they’ve been treated throughout the process.
For instance, while the archdiocese has unveiled a polished “New Haven Catholic” website and took out a full-page ad in the New Haven Register defending the decision, there’s one thing the archdiocese and Archbishop Blair conspicuously haven’t done: communicate directly with the parishioners of St. Mary’s since the decision was finalized, nearly a full month ago.
“Nothing direct,” shared parishioner Josh Becker, who also serves on the parish finance council. “Nothing but ‘top down’ clericalism.”
Becker says the lack of transparency and accessibility from the archdiocese is nothing new. He was one of several parishioners who learned about the likelihood of the Dominicans being ousted in late June of 2021, a report that came from laypeople who had connections at the chancery in Hartford and was confirmed by various archdiocesan priests.
In response, he helped to organize an ad hoc committee in an effort to engage with the archdiocese, but they were never able to get a meeting with an archdiocesan representative.
Another parishioner, Erika Ahern, led a group of mothers in the parish to draft and send a letter to Archbishop Blair, sharing the “remarkable fruitfulness” of St. Mary’s under the Dominicans’ direction and appealing to him “as a spiritual father” to reconsider the move. While the archbishop replied to their letter, the mother’s request for a meeting with him “was not addressed at all.”
“The lack of communication, boiling it all down to ‘We need the priory, goodbye Dominicans,’ is frankly insulting to the laity,” said Ahern. “Somehow we’re supposed to accept this very short explanation for the complete disruption and uprooting of our lives, of our children’s spiritual lives. … It makes it hard to trust that our spiritual needs will be met.”
A number of parishioners suggested that the level of parish consultation sought by the archdiocese was inadequate, considerably less than in other instances of consolidations or closures that have taken place during the archdiocesan-wide pastoral plan. Several said it was especially troubling that, at a time when the universal Church is focusing on better cooperation between the faithful and the hierarchy, lay Catholics in New Haven felt like they were getting the runaround.
Elliott, the archdiocese’s spokesman, said that given the fact that the municipal model involves the merger of nearly a dozen parishes, individual parish-level consultations would not have been feasible. Instead, he says the archdiocese relied “heavily” upon feedback from discussions that took place as part of the 2020 diocesan synod, which included lay representatives from each New Haven parish.
A “sense of urgency” and the “desire for long-lasting, quality pastoral care” were two of the most important synod takeaways the archdiocese used in its determination to move forward with the municipal model with St. Mary’s as the hub. The decision, Elliott said, was also informed by the research of an outside consultant group.
Michael Mercugliano served as St. Mary’s lay representative for the listening session with the archbishop prior to the 2020 archdiocesan synod. He suggests that, whatever metrics outside consultants and archdiocesan leaders took into account, “there’s something that isn’t being looked at” — namely a vibrant, young and orthodox parish culture.
Mercugliano, who actually resides in the Diocese of Norwich with his family but was drawn to St. Mary’s through the devotion of its community, says part of the disconnect may be the fact that Archbishop Blair simply isn’t familiar enough with the on-the-ground reality at St. Mary’s. A parishioner for 15 years, Mercugliano says he can count “on one hand” the number of times the archbishop has visited the parish, which lies a 40-minute drive south of Hartford.
“I don’t think they fully understood,” he said of archdiocesan leadership.
Different Accounts, Lingering Questions
The archdiocese has suggested that the communications mishaps can be chalked up to a Dominican misfire. While the two parties had talked about issuing a joint statement, the Dominicans ended up breaking the news unilaterally on Oct. 5, while the archdiocese’s priests were at their yearly convocation.
“We would have greatly preferred to share this news together later in the week as originally discussed, but that was not to be the case,” said Elliott.
Dominican Father Ken Letoile, provincial of the Province of St. Joseph, acknowledges that there were perhaps lapses on his part — “an email not sent in time, an avenue that I might’ve taken but overlooked” — but he says the Dominicans’ motives were reasonable: The archdiocese had announced the New Haven municipal model — and therefore the Dominicans’ departure — to the entire presbyterate. Rather than risk the people of St. Mary’s hearing about the change from somewhere else first, the Dominicans made the decision to release a statement to the parish.
The Dominicans and the archdiocese differ on some other key points, as well.
Perhaps most essentially, they differ on the viability and timetable of alternative living and ministry options in the Archdiocese of Hartford that were presented to the Dominicans in March, when the archdiocese first shared its intention to assume pastoral ministry of St. Mary’s. These options included assuming pastoral responsibility for the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury; administering the municipal model for the New Haven suburb of Hamden, which would include four church campuses; or simply pastoring St. Joseph’s in New Haven, which would be split off from St. Mary’s and raised to the status of a shrine.
The latter two options would involve Dominican friars living at the St. Joseph’s rectory and convent, a pair of buildings that would need to be conjoined and significantly renovated to be suitable for the Dominicans’ communal way of life.
Considering that it only became definitive in mid-September that the Dominicans would not be able to continue residing in St. Mary’s priory, Father Letoile told the archdiocese that each new possibility would need to be thoroughly researched and considered alongside other new missions the order had been offered in other dioceses. He informed the archdiocese that such a decision couldn’t be reached prior to the Dominicans’ next provincial chapter meeting in June 2022.
The archdiocese appears, at times, to have inaccurately characterized this inability to presently accept one of the offers as an outright rejection of them. For instance, in his comments to the New Haven Register, Archbishop Blair paraphrased the Dominicans’ response as, “Thanks but no thanks, we’re not interested in doing anything.”
When asked why the archdiocese didn’t simply push back its plans to take control of St. Mary’s until the Dominicans had had time to vet and decide on one of the alternatives, Elliott said that “waiting until June 2022 was not a mutually agreeable timeline.”
“We feel that prolonging this discussion for another year would not benefit the faithful of New Haven who deserve decisive action to invigorate their parish lives,” he expanded — a peculiar statement, considering that the lack of flexibility could very well cost the short-on-priests archdiocese the dedicated service of the Dominicans going forward, aside from two friars who will continue with chaplaincy assignments in the New Haven area.
Another peculiarity: In describing why a renovated St. Joseph’s rectory might be appealing to the Dominicans as a priory, Elliott also described characteristics that sound like they would make the parish a suitable hub itself for the municipal model. For instance, he described St. Joseph’s as “very, very close to St Mary’s” — a five-minute, one-mile drive apart, in fact. If St. Mary’s was selected because of its central location in New Haven, it seems fair to ask why a parish described as “very, very close” to it also couldn’t be considered as sufficiently centralized.
Additionally, Elliott noted that a renovated St. Joseph’s residential option “could have housed up to 10 people” — the same number of priests the archdiocese intends to have live together at St. Mary’s priory.
When these coincidences were pointed out, and the archdiocese was asked why it pursued displacing the Dominicans from St. Mary’s instead of renovating St. Joseph’s, Elliott simply responded by reiterating that St. Mary’s is “geographically central for this pastoral planning configuration,” and that the priory could be used to house more diocesan priests than the current number of Dominicans living there.
The Silent Knights
Another significant dimension regarding the proposed alternatives, specifically those involving the Dominicans residing in a renovated St. Joseph’s rectory, deals with financial resources.
The archdiocese acknowledged that the space would require renovation — but provided no concrete explanation of how the project would be funded. Father Letoile told the Register that in talks on the matter, the archdiocese implied that the Knights of Columbus would foot the bill — a misrepresentation of which the Knights made clear to the archbishop.
“The Knights never agreed to modify those structures to provide a Dominican priory,” Father Letoile clarified.
The Knights, for their part, have not responded to several requests for comment. Founded by a Hartford diocesan priest, the Knights are key stakeholders in the New Haven Catholic community, their headquarters only 10 blocks away from St. Mary’s.
At the same time, the Knights have formed a unique partnership with the Dominicans in New Haven. One of the friars, Father Jonathan Kalisch, currently serves as the Knights’ chaplain, and another Dominican, Father Gabriel O’Donnell, served as the initial postulator of Father McGivney’s cause for canonization. And of course, their founder’s tomb is in St. Mary’s, a parish they have generously supported throughout the years, such as when they loaned St. Mary’s the money to fix their 2019 extensive roof damage and then forgave the loan in January 2021 when the project was completed. St. Mary’s has become a pilgrimage site for devotees of the Knight’s founder, a trend that would likely only increase if and when the Father McGivney is elevated to “saint” status.
Elliott confirmed that the Knights of Columbus were a part of the conversation, clarifying that although the transfer of custody of St. Mary’s from the Dominicans to the archdiocese wasn’t their idea, “they were at the table and aware of all the decisions that were being made.”
A Lack of Trust
In the absence of transparency, many New Haven Catholics are left to wonder if alternative, unstated aims might be involved in what’s transpiring at St. Mary’s.
“Something definitely doesn’t add up,” said Wolfgang. “There’s a general sense that there’s some other agenda at play here.”
Becker, a lawyer who works with developers in New York, said the whole thing “just feels like a dirty real estate play.”
Some parishioners have also raised concerns about the Archdiocese of Hartford’s vicar general, Msgr. Stephen Boguslawski. Previously a member of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, he left the order and was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Hartford within the past couple years, suggesting to some a possible conflict of interests.
Responding to these concerns, Elliott acknowledged that while “sometimes it’s a small Catholic world,” Msgr. Boguslawski “has exerted great effort and great creativity in trying to keep the Dominicans in the archdiocese.”
Ahern attributes what’s happening to a “zero-sum game” mentality among Church leaders, that views the success of the Dominicans at St. Mary’s as “somehow a threat to the archdiocese.”
“We can’t see this as a zero-sum game,” she said. “And when our leaders act like it is, the children and the families are the ones who will suffer, and we will continue to diminish as long as that’s the approach that’s taken.”