Salem Catholics voted Sunday night for their four parishes to be among the first in the Archdiocese of Boston to be grouped together under a major reorganization plan that would remake 288 parishes into 135 collaboratives each led by a single pastor.
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley will announce in January the 12 to 15 parishes he has chosen to be included in the first phase of "Disciples In Mission," a five-year plan to bring Catholics back to church, address a clergy shortage, and strengthen financially struggling parishes.
"The norm is not sustainable," the Rev. Paul Soper, the archdiocese's director of pastoral planning, told about 150 parishioners gathered in the parish hall of Immaculate Conception Parish.
The Salem Collaborative includes St. Anne, Immaculate Conception, St. James, and St. John the Baptist parishes. A task force, made up of parishioners of each parish, has met for more than two years to work on a plan to collaborate. The parishes for years have held joint events, such as confirmation retreats and special liturgies.
Soper praised the cooperation, saying it puts the group in a strong position to be included in the first round of collaboration. "Salem is right out there in front," he said. "Because of that, we're really hoping that you're willing to be a phase one collaborative."
Parishioners had mixed views on how quickly they should embrace the change.
"The train is leaving the station, but it doesn't have to be the express train," said Joe O'Keefe, a member of the finance council at Immaculate Conception. "We should slow down the process, and not be the first. Let's be in the next one, not the first one."
Kathleen Keefe Ternes, another parishioner at Immaculate, countered that Salem parishes can't afford to delay the change.
"It is a risk, there is no doubt about it,being in phase one" said Ternes, who served on the collaborative's task force. "We also have the opportunity, in phase one, to be the conductor of the train, and not just be in the car coming behind."
Anne DeVoe, a representative of St. James on the task force, said Salem parishes must move swiftly to address issues of aging clergy, declining Mass attendance and youth involvment.
"Our spiritual clock is ticking," she said. "We are losing our youth. We're losing our elderly at a fast rate (to death). We can't afford to wait . . . This is a city that can pull together."
But Lucy Corchado, a parishioner active in the Hispanic ministry at Immaculate, felt more discussion is necessary.
"We had one community meeting, and a lot of questions were asked," Corchado said, referring to a meeting last spring where the pastoral plan was first introduced. "I thought we'd get some responses back . . but the answers never came."
But a majority of parishioners-- voting by a show of hands -- said they favored being in the first phase. The recommendation will now be brought to O'Malley, Soper said.
"In the end, it will be the archbishop's decision. But I will bring your deliberations, and your vote, to him," he said.
O'Malley will choose a mix of urban and suburban parishes across the archdiocese for the first round, Soper said.
The second round, which will include 50 parishes, will start in 2014. After a two year break, 50 more parishes will be selected for the third round in 2016, with the rest going in the final round in 2018, he said.
The plan would not close or merge parishes. They would keep their own finances, assets and buildings. But they would be placed into a collaborative, run by a single pastor. They would share priests, deacons, lay staff, and other resources.
Pastors would be required to resign their positions, but they may reapply to lead the collaborative, Soper said. "Any priest in the archdiocese could apply to be pastor of the collaborative. The priests that are already here could also apply," he said.
The first phase of the plan will follow an aggressive timeline. Pastors must submit a letter of resignation in March, but would stay with their parish until a pastor for the collaborative is chosen, Soper explained.
Training for the new pastor would start in May, and the collaborative would officially start on July 1, he said. Training for the staff, including priests and deacons, would begin in September. The collaborative would have until December, 2014, to submit a plan to the archdiocese, outlining how their collaborative would operate. Mass schedules, housing for priests, and efforts to reach out to lapsed and new Catholics must be included, Soper said.
"How are you going to live out Disciples In Mission right here?" he asked. "Most importantly, how are you going to evangelize?"
Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe