A full Church witnessed history on Feb. 11 as Deborah Brown became the first layperson installed as pastoral administrator in the Diocese of Buffalo. Bishop Richard J. Malone installed Brown at St. John the Baptist Parish in Alden during the 11 a.m. Mass.
"God promised in the book of Jeremiah, 'I will give you shepherds.'" Bishop Malone said. "The Lord continues to be faithful to that promise, 'I will give you shepherds.' Today, we welcome a new shepherd to this community. The concept is, perhaps, shocking to some that we now have a laywomen who is the pastoral administrator of this parish."
According to the bishop, the United States has 17,000 Catholic parishes, with 20 percent without a resident priest. Instead, laywomen, religious and deacons lead these parishes due to a declining number of active priests in the country.
"This is an evolving ministry that Alden hasn't experienced before, but is really becoming more and more common as we try to work with the resources we have. I assure you, you will be very well shepherded," the bishop explained.
In 2013, the Diocese of Buffalo began a pastoral administrator program, inviting deacons, vowed religious and laypeople to take a special class to prepare them to lead parishes. Taking care of administrative duties would free up priests to concentrate on sacramental duties.
"(Bishop Edward M. Grosz's) vision was to have a plan in place, a pool of people as it were, who had their master's from the seminary, who had their degree, who had good parish experience, who might be a good person for that kind of position," Brown said, just a couple weeks after her official Jan. 3 start date.
A former associate director of Religious Education for the diocese, Brown spent 15 years in parish ministry in Lockport and the Newman Center at the University at Buffalo. To prepare for pastoral leadership, she took a mandatory class from the seminary that saw various diocesan leaders explain the function of their offices to give the would be administrators an understanding of Parish Data System, Insurance Services, Canon Law and other diocesan offices an administrator would use.
"I am now in charge of the temporal affairs," Brown said. "I am, for all intents and purposes, the pastor. It's funny get used to, when people request that they want to be a sponsor for a sacrament, that signature is always by the pastor, so I'm the one signs it. It's very weird. It says 'pastor' on the line, so I have to write 'al administrator' because that's my true title."
Brown is only the second person from that administrator class to receive a parish. Sister Lori High, SSMN, began her leadership of St. George Parish in West Falls August 2017.
Founded in 1850 as a German parish, St. John's has a steady congregation of 1,500 members and a school. The former pastor, Father James D. Ciupek, moved to Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park last September, after 12 years in Alden. Brown thinks her background as director of Sacramental Life at St. John the Baptist in Lockport made her a good candidate for her new role.
"The Pastoral Administration Board really had a sense that I would be a good fit because this is a parish that needs some healing," Brown said. "They really hated to lose their pastor and they had some difficulties with pastors in the past. So, the fact that they were disappointed in losing their pastor, then finding out that they were not getting a full-time priest, there was obviously a lot of consternation. So, I think they felt the gift I could bring was relational ministry is very important to me. I think they felt that was something that was needed."
Father Joseph Gatto, Father James Walter and Father Richard DiGulio will also serve the parish. Canon Law dictates that a priest must be in charge of all Church entities, so Father Gatto will serve as canonical pastor, having oversight of the parish.
"Father Gatto is technically pastor of the parish. His job is to make sure I'm doing my job. He won't be involved in day-to-day activities," Brown said.
Father Gatto will continue his role as president-rector of Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. He had previously worked with Brown at St. John the Baptist in Lockport.
"(The bishop) would like me, particularly in the first year, to be somewhat more involved that what would normally be the case," Father Gatto said. "This is the first time that this model has been used with regards to a layperson being the parish administrator."
As canonical pastor, Father Gatto will approve budgets and sign fiscal reports. He will also sign delegations if a priest comes in to celebrate a wedding.
"I'm not going to be signing the day-to-day checks. I won't be making the decisions on the minutia of the parish, but my responsibility is to represent the bishop as any pastor would, but in a way that allows for a brand new style of leadership, which I think is awesome," he said.
Brown has no plans for any major changes to the small church. "Bishop Grosz made it very clear. He said, 'Don't change anything for a year.' I'm going to hold him to that," Brown said. "But my biggest plan is for people to get to know me and trust me. My number one agenda in terms of what I'm going to do is listen. I want to know what the people need, what they want, what their hopes and dreams are, where they'd like the parish to go. Parish Life is my driving force, almost my mission statement."
One of the prerequisites to taking the role was to describe her spiritual journey, to give everyone a sense of how she was formed. "When I wrote it, I realized that parish life was so integral from going to Catholic school to going to CYO, my sacraments, playing in the folk group way back when in the '60s. All the things that I did, every parish I was in, every point along the way has meant so much to me. I think people get most of their experience from Church. So, we need vibrant strong parishes for people to go to. So, my goal is to make St. John's a destination where people are welcome and there's a lot of activity and passion for helping others."
After concluding the Installation Rite on Feb. 11, Brown thanked everyone and announced, "We're going to really try together to live a life of caring for one another, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation. We're all going to have to step up. I'm honored to have you all here today."