East Lansing, MI – East Lansing, MI (WKAR) - This week, the Lansing Catholic Diocese will start the formal process of merging two parishes in East Lansing - St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Student Parish. The merger is part of a larger plan to address diminishing resources and declining mass attendance.
But some members of St. John's aren't happy. They say the student parish is one of the bright spots in the docese.
Everyone who goes to St. John's Student Parish knows - you have to get there early if you want to get a seat at the 10 o'clock mass. Even in the summer, the crowd overflows into the hallway.
And when it comes to singing - nearly everyone puts their heart into it.
The altar at St. John's is surrounded by pews on three sides - giving it an intimate feel, and a good view of Father Mark Inglot.
On July 1, Father Mark will become pastor for both St. John's and St. Thomas (Aquinas in East Lansing). And St. John's status will be downgraded from a parish to an "oratory center" or chapel.
"When St. John's loses its parochial status and is no longer a parish, no matter what word you use to describe it that's a big deal," says Mary Jo White. She's been a parishioner at St. John's for the past 30 years. She says at first she wasn't too concerned about the merger until she read the fine print in Faith Magazine, a publication put out by the diocese.
There, she discovered that St. John's will no longer be a parish. That means that St. John's will continue to provide services such as baptisms, weddings and funerals - but doesn't have to hold mass.
White worries that eventually there'll be fewer resources and personnel for St. John's, and that will diminish the mission of the church.
"In the years I've been at St. John's, particularly the last 10 years as long as (Father) Mark Inglot has been there, the outreach to students has been tremendous," White says. "And it would be simple if you could say well you can just go to St. Thomas (Aquinas). But the point isn't that there's anything wrong with St. Thomas. You know, it has a beautiful organ, it's a beautiful place, but it's not my parish, really."
This Friday, Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea will issue a decree formally announcing that as of July 1, St. John's Student Parish will become an oratory center or a chapel.
He admits that's not the same as a parish, and that it's possible this lower status could affect how St. John's functions.
"I suppose that's always a possibility," says Bishop Boyea. "I don't envision that. I mean the aim here is to provide service to the kids, uh students there. And you're not going to provide service to them if you don't have mass. So that's critical."
But many people worry there won't be mass here anymore.
Others seem unaware of the changes awaiting their parish like MSU senior Julie Cooper. She's been coming because she enjoys the sermons.
"The church my hometown, they're not so much relatable to life and this I feel like I can take the lessons from the sermon and go back and apply it to the college campus, the classroom, my life in general, so I feel they're very relatable," Cooper says.
St. John's has already eliminated the 5 pm Saturday mass, which was very popular with students. It's now at St. Thomas, a mile away. Cooper says she probably won't walk there.
But Sean Ramsey will. He's an MSU grad who's now in his second year of medical school at MSU. Ramsey says he has no misgivings about the pending merger and already attended an outreach mass at St. Thomas.
"It's definitely, you know St. John's Student parish you get the youthful feel, there's more students here, but at the same time I think its really good to get that different feel, different perspective, keep your faith real and change it up a little bit," Ramsey says. "I really enjoyed it."
Jake Foglio is a retired priest in the Lansing diocese.
He says many members of St. John's don't understand what it will mean when it's no longer a parish.
"I feel like, because of the lack of total transparency, a lot of people don't realize what's happening here and the decree that's coming out is going to be a shock to some, not about the eventual coming together to coordinate, but the end of St. John's as a parish," Foglio says.
Foglio is worried about the future, when he says unseen economic and social pressures - and a change of leadership - could mean the demise of what will now be called St. John's Student Center.
For now, St. John's parishioners continue to crowd the church on Sunday and sing their hearts out. For a moment, it keeps their minds off the heartbreak that may be coming soon.