Newton woman will help coordinate parish reconfiguration

When parishes meet to decide how their cluster should be reconfigured, many questions arise such as what will happen to the staff of a closed parish, to the stained glass windows, to the children in religious education classes. Kathleen Heck, a Newton resident, was recently appointed by the Archdiocese of Boston to help answer these questions and make the transition of closing parishes and welcoming parishioners to their new parishes as smooth as possible.

Heck, who has served on the archdiocesan pastoral council for the past four years, quit her part-time position as a lawyer for a Boston consulting firm to become the full-time special assistant to the moderator of the curia, Bishop Richard G. Lennon. Despite the long hours the job will entail — visiting parishes seven days a week once parish closings are announced — she felt called to serve the Church by becoming a part of the reconfiguration process.

Her responsibility in the process is a bit daunting, coordinating the activities of everyone involved in the reconfiguration process — over a dozen departments in the chancery alone, human resources, finance, real-estate, religious education, etc., with a role in parish life. Her main goal, she said, will be to settle the parishioners and staff of parishes that have closed.

“I think it will be a huge challenge, but one of the most important things I’ve ever done and certainly the most worthwhile because I share [Bishop Lennon’s] view and Archbishop Seán O’Malley’s view that we will be able to grow a better Church for Boston from a stronger foundation,” Heck stated.

The archbishop has said that a “substantial” number of parish closings are necessary to strengthen the Church. Parishes are currently in the first phase of determining which parish closures they think will best further the mission of the Church. They are scheduled to complete their recommendations by March 8.

Heck has attended a number of cluster meetings to answer questions about what she refers to as the “closing/welcoming process.” Clusters have raised a number of concerns. One reoccurring question has been how long it will take from the time a parish closure is announced to the effective closure date. According to Heck, parishes will be closed in three intervals — eight weeks, 12 weeks and 16 weeks — from the announcement of a closure. Clusters are able to recommend which time period they think will work best for their cluster, she said. A final determination will be made after considering the size of the parish, its location and scheduling issues such as the number of children in religious education.

Heck plans to post the answers to frequently asked questions on the archdiocesan website and in The Pilot from time to time.

She said that clusters are at a variety of stages in the recommendation process. She said that the cluster members that are “doing very well” are looking at the Church as a whole and not focusing on their own parish.

“They’re not talking about individual parishes,” Heck explained “They are talking about what their cluster gets done — what the mission of the Church is in their cluster ... and how they will get this done with one less parish or with two fewer parishes.”

“It isn’t about identifying weaknesses,” she continued. “It’s about identifying locations of parishes that can most effectively accomplish the Church’s mission.”

At meetings, she tries to emphasize to clusters that there is no list of parishes scheduled to close. “The list lies in the clusters,” she said stressing that each cluster should make responsible closure recommendations in order to come to a conclusion they can accept.

“I would strongly prefer to come out to a parish after the announcement [of a closure] that knows that their cluster did its job instead of wishing it had,” Heck said.

Heck is still developing how the “closing/welcoming” process will function. She said that between March 15 and mid-April she will hold information sessions in each of the five regions in the archdiocese during which the general process will be relayed to pastors and their staff. “More specific information and support” will be available after parish closings have been announced.

In the coming months, once the closings have been announced, Heck will visit the leadership of every parish slated to close and each parish designated to “welcome” parishioners. Some parishioners will be “welcomed” by more than one parish, she said, but generally, the process will involve “pairs of parishes.”

Despite the strenuous task ahead of her, Heck said, “some part of everything I’ve done was in some way getting me ready for this job.”

Heck, 49, has been a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association since 1981. Therefore, she understands the legal aspects involved in reconfiguration. In college, she received a minor in art history with a specialization in the architecture of churches, giving her an appreciation of the beauty of archdiocesan churches. She chaired the renovation committee for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the 1980s and for 11 years was active in fundraising for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she said she learned to finance an organization. In 2001, she completed a course in canon law. She has also been active as a lector, religious education teacher, a Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) team member and has been a liaison to the Korean Catholic community for the past eight years.

Heck lives in Newton with her husband William, trustee of the Forest Hill Cemetery in Boston, and their four children.