byTom Mason Pilot Correspondent
A banner outside St. Martha and Mary Church in Lakeville identifies the parish as part of the Cranberry Catholic Collaborative. The pastor of the three parishes Father John Sheridan said of efforts to bring the parishes together, "I've been amazed and thrilled at what we accomplished so far." Pilot photo/Tom Mason
LAKEVILLE -- The Cranberry Catholic Collaborative is making a splash. At St. Martha and Mary's in Lakeville, St. Lima's in Rochester, and Sacred Heart of Middleboro, "Disciples in Mission," the archdiocese's program to reinvigorate the grassroots is off to a good start.
"Our numbers (attendance at Mass) are up. I've been amazed and thrilled at what we accomplished so far. It's been a challenge but all three parishes have worked together but I feel that each still has its identity," said Father John Sheridan, the jovial pastor of the three churches which comprise the Cranberry Catholic Collaborative, part of the first phase of collaboratives formed in the archdiocese.
Besides the normal issues related to consolidating operations, the first hurtle faced by Father Sheridan, as well as his staff and parishioners, is distance. By area, the 144 square miles in Cranberry Catholic Collaborative is the largest in the Archdiocese. Lakeville, Middleboro, and Rochester are still rural communities. Agriculture, specifically growing cranberries, is an integral part of the towns' culture. There's plenty of open land. Homes can be miles apart. In addition, the communities in the collaborative are surrounded by the Fall River Diocese.
"It takes me 25 minutes to travel from St. Martha and Mary's in Lakeville (which is approximately the midpoint of the parishes) down to St. Lima's in Rochester. When I tell people about the drive, some are amazed. In my last assignment in Salem, we had four parishes practically within a stone's throw of mine. It's lucky I don't mind driving," said Father Sheridan.
Father Sheridan has some ideas why the first stage of collaboration has been successful: it starts with the spirit of the priests, parishioners, and the staff.
He said: "We held hands. We jumped in. And we trusted. We are very blessed. Our three directors of religious education communicate and work together very well."
And it also helps to have someone on the parish staff who is up to date on the latest technology as well as how it can be used to help the far flung collaborative stay in touch.
"We are very blessed because we have Holly Clark. She's helped us in many ways, particularly with technology. We're working on developing an app. We use Google Calendar. We have a lot of distance to cover but with the technology we keep in touch," explained Father Sheridan.
One thing that brings the parishes together is the natural beauty of Southeastern Massachusetts. Assawompsett Pond, part of the largest natural water body in the state, is located right across the street from St. Martha and Mary's. There's a spectacular view of sunrise from the church entrance. Eagles and herons nest nearby -- where they feast from the pond which has the largest herring fishery east of the Mississippi. Father Sheridan's front porch is a prime location for birdwatching.
"We did stargazing in Rochester at St. Lima's. It was great to have a prayer service for Advent underneath the stars. When I preach about Advent, I always point out to the stars. I love Lakeville's interdenominational service on Easter morning in front of St. Martha and Mary's. We will be out at Middleborough's Crazy Days (a local town celebration) in a couple of weeks and give out info about the Church." said Father Sheridan.
Increasingly, parishioners from the three-church family are visiting each other to share their gifts and talents.
"All three churches have worked together. The worship committee in particular has worked hard not to put one church above another. I love it, for instance, when someone from Lakeville or Middleboro comes down to St. Lima's and find out what a pretty parish it is," said Father Sheridan.
This is just the beginning for the Cranberry Catholic Collaborative: its pastoral plan. "Harvesters in Christ," was recently approved by Cardinal Seán O'Malley.
During the fall, the collaborative will be rolling out programs to open up hearts to encounter Christ and help parishioners find ways to hear His Voice. This includes starting a vocation team to encourage parishioners to learn about how they can contribute to the Body of Christ by becoming "discerning disciples." Father Sheridan and his flock will be providing opportunities for young men and women to learn about religious life. Putting a handicapped accessible bathroom at St. Martha and Mary's is on the top of Father Sheridan's to-do list.
"I see what we've accomplished but know what remains. Part One is done but now the work really begins. It's important that we are patient with each other. I am a very patient man", said Father Sheridan.
"We are called to be something better. We want to present to people that there's so much more. Our culture wants us to settle. Our Church doesn't want us to settle. We cannot afford to look back. God always makes things new. People have pressure and stress but we bring joy and hope. This is why I love what I do. I am grateful that the Archdiocese in its wisdom brought me here to do God's Will."