COLUMBIA — The Rev. Thomas Saucier rarely stops smiling.
While celebrating Mass, he smiles at another priest giving a homily, the cantor singing a responsorial psalm, members of the parish as he meets their eyes. There was even the suggestion of a smile Sunday as he signed the papers that officially made him pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Such an achievement is cause for celebration, or at least it normally would be. But Saucier, 47, is already a pastor at St. Thomas More Newman Center.
In July, Sacred Heart’s only priest left, and the order that serves Columbia didn’t replace him. Making a dollar out of 75 cents, the two churches, which serve about 1,500 families, began to share three priests where there used to be four.
That doubles Saucier’s workload, but you wouldn’t be able to see the strain on his face. He just keeps smiling.
"Since I was 10, I wanted to do this," he says.
This is the first time Catholic churches in Columbia have had to share priests, but the city's situation is by no means unique. The Rev. Charles Bouchard, who works in the provincial office of the Order of Preachers, says he could — off the top of his head — list multiple pastors in the Midwest who are spread even more thinly than priests here.
The problem is too few priests and a growing church. That’s no secret, and Saucier doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge it. But he's optimistic. He always is.
Before the preparation of the gifts Sunday at Sacred Heart, Saucier took a moment to speak from the pulpit. It was a move away from his typical style of speaking at the Newman Center, where he delivers homilies while walking among parishioners. But at this more conventional church, he stood behind a podium and began his acceptance speech with a story:
“One of my favorite popes of the 20th century — who gets little credit and deserves more — is Paul VI,” Saucier said to the parish. “And Pope Paul VI was one day pondering his many titles. He had 30 titles as the bishop of Rome. And he said, ‘My favorite is servant of the servants of God.’ And that was always how he used to prefer signing his name: Paul VI, Servant of the Servants of God.”
The story went on for several more minutes as Saucier launched into tangents, imagined the feast of heaven — foie gras, hamburgers or whatever your favorite food is — and eventually returned to the idea of Paul VI as a servant of servants.
“For better or for worse, I am your pastor,” he said. “I like the title servant — you might find more creative titles for me that we can’t say in church. I’m sure you will at least give me a good 100 days of honeymoon. Hopefully, longer. I would prefer six months to a year. I’ll deal with whatever you will give me.”
The parishioners laughed, as they often do when Saucier speaks. And then they applauded, making his installment as pastor official. He hugged the other priests at the altar, including the Rev. Rob Fields, who was leading the Mass.
“Now, let’s continue with the preparation of the gifts,” Fields said, and the parishioners began to pass baskets of donations.
“Which is necessary,” Saucier said with a wink.
“We’ve got to feed the young man,” said Fields, tapping Saucier’s stomach as the parish laughed again.
And with no additional fanfare, Saucier’s honeymoon began.
A culture clash
Sacred Heart is on the edge of downtown, tucked away on the quiet corner of Locust and Waugh streets. It looks every bit the traditional church — a gray stone exterior, stained-glass windows and a floor plan in the shape of a cross. Inside, there’s room for no more than 250 people; it makes sense that the church serves fewer than 500 families. Early Sunday mornings are straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: Parish members drift in under light tinted by the stained glass. Music from an organ and full choir plays overhead.
Just a mile away, the Newman Center is the portrait of modernity. Surrounded by MU and Greektown, the church serves a younger crowd; it has Sunday evening Masses aimed at teen and MU student worship. Its sanctuary abandons the traditional cross shape in favor of a semicircle arrangement with nearly enough seats to qualify as a Broadway theater. The lyrics to songs are projected onto two screens on both sides of the altar, which is often the stage for a live band or miniature orchestra.
Both churches are served by the Order of Preachers, a worldwide order with a provincial office in Chicago. Before Aug. 1, the order had placed three priests at the Newman Center, with Saucier as pastor. Sacred Heart had a staff of one priest, the Rev. Steve Kuhlmann, but he left at the end of July for a new assignment.
Rather than fill his place, the order, in conjunction with the Diocese of Jefferson City, decided Sacred Heart and the Newman Center would share their priests. Since Saucier arrived in Columbia more than five years ago, he says, there has been talk of the churches cooperating more. Kuhlmann’s departure was just a catalyst.
Now, the three remaining priests — Saucier and the Revs. Simon-Felix Michalski and Patrick Tobin — rotate between Sacred Heart and the Newman Center to celebrate Mass. That requires adaptability; the two churches have markedly different cultures, so the same style of homily might not work in both parishes.
Luckily for Saucier, he used to be a high school teacher, where “you still have to cover the same material,” regardless of how differently students learn from class to class. But he admits he isn’t always successful in moving back and forth between his two churches.
It’s only been two months, and every priest needs time to adjust whenever he moves to a new parish. There’s a pretty steep learning curve, Michalski says, but really, it takes about a year to be comfortable with a new crowd. And even if audiences don’t always react positively to their homilies, at least the priests are always in rotation.
“They’re not going to dislike all three of our styles,” Michalski says.
For the people at Sacred Heart, the priests organized a series of meetings where parish members could come and express their worries and hopes for the future of the church. The goal: to assure the Sacred Heart community that nothing was going to change, that it wouldn't be more like the Newman Center.
Sarah Schappe, who lives in Columbia but works in Jefferson City as a state attorney, attended one of those meetings. She says that since the priests began rotating through Sacred Heart, she hasn’t seen any change in culture.
At the meeting, she says, people emphasized how much they like Sacred Heart as it is.
“We talked about the challenges the parish has, where we could use more resources,” she says, “but we didn’t have a lot of major changes.”
In fact, when asked about their goals for the church’s future, the meeting’s attendees didn’t talk about culture; instead, they focused on how they could continue to build Sacred Heart’s community.
A systemic change
Priests in rural communities sometimes have to serve not only one church but also more than one town, says Bouchard, who lives in Chicago. There is even a pastor in Springfield, Ill., Saucier says, who alone covers 2,500 families.
“More and more, it’s becoming common,” Saucier says. “It’s a sad reality.”
According to the Diocese of Jefferson City's “Annual General Statistical Questionnaire,” the diocese had 92 priests in 2002; that includes local diocesan priests, non-U.S. diocesan priests and religious order priests like Saucier. In 2010, there were 91 — but the number of local priests dropped by 13 as more international and order-provided priests moved in. So, although the numbers look constant, there is high turnover because priests like the Dominicans usually serve terms that last no more than six years.
The good news is there has been an upswing in the number of people entering the seminary during the past five years, Saucier says. The results of that will show as people begin joining the priesthood in upcoming years.
And Saucier has a theory: “It’s almost bad to say, but a bad economy’s good for the priesthood.” He quickly backtracked and clarified that he wasn’t suggesting the economy is forcing people into becoming priests. But, he says, the economy is giving an extra push to the people who had wanted to enter the priesthood before but were on the fence.
Still, the strain on Columbia is hard enough to deal with, especially for Sheila Bauer, the office manager for Sacred Heart. If the priests’ workloads double, so does her own. She’s being pulled from all directions: Over the course of an interview — which interrupted her conversation with someone who was helping with the office's new phones — her head whipped around the room with each new request from someone needing help. There was the woman who needed to make copies for Bible studies, the woman who just wanted to talk about an old pamphlet, and the woman who poked her head in but saw that Bauer was busy and only asked, “Should I come back later?”
“And this isn’t even my busy day,” Bauer said as the woman left.
Her desktop computer is covered in virtual sticky notes, color-coded for each priest. She keeps their calendars and manages their to-do lists. Her organization is important, she says, because “I see Father Thomas only two days a week, so I have to be ready.”
She works with Chris Temporal, her counterpart at the Newman Center. The two speak four or five times per week, more than they did before the priest-sharing began Aug. 1. The two women need to be on top of their game because the priests are attending twice as many meetings.
Many people don’t see the day-to-day life of a priest. Often, interactions are limited to Mass and community gatherings. But priests make hospital visits and are always on call. They also have meetings — a lot of meetings. Saucier has to attend meetings for both churches, and that’s where the strain comes from.
“Saying multiple Masses doesn’t bother me,” Saucier says. “It’s the day-to-day meetings. I’m an administrator, and that takes time.”
He tries not to miss meetings, but sometimes he can't go and others fill in for him. “Part of me finds administration invigorating, strange as that sounds,” he says.
Still, Bauer says, the work since August has been fun and fast-paced. Change is good.
But is change good when it involves stretching priests thin?
“That’s yet to be seen,” Bauer says. “It’s trying. In a year, we might be on more solid ground. We’re forging new streams here.”
There is a light that never goes out
Saucier likes to say that he could not have invented the iPhone, but he could have inspired someone else to do it. He’s not a details man; he’s more of a motivator. His hands, unlike those of his electrician brother, don’t have calluses.
In working through the stress of spreading priests over multiple parishes, he’s looking at the big picture, how to help incarnate Jesus within a community. There's back and forth with the provincial office, as well as a tension of interests — doing what’s best for the community versus what’s best for the province. But in the end, Saucier says his duty is to his parishioners, the people he's served for years at the Newman Center and weeks at Sacred Heart.
That’s what keeps him from getting frustrated. He doesn’t know when — or even if — another priest might be coming. The provincial office doesn't have any answers, either. Saucier would like to have another priest on staff. But no conflict deters him from a religious calling he’s felt since he was a boy.
Saucier grew up a Southern Baptist; he spent his first 16 years in that denomination. When he was 10, he would sit his cousins down on tree stumps and preach to them.
But he’s also never taken himself too seriously. In his collection of iPhone apps, you’ll find the Roman Missal right by Starbucks (he’s a coffee fanatic), which is right by The New York Times, which is right by The Onion, a humorous fake newspaper. He sometimes prepares for Mass by listening to his iPod — early Prince is always good for that. However, his most-played song is likely “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, or something by Morrissey or The Smiths. What can he say? He’s an ’80s guy.
Saucier says nothing has ever rocked the foundations of his faith — not even the stress of Sacred Heart and the Newman Center sharing priests. Sure, he’s been mad at God, but he’s always in communication with God. Yelling and screaming — it’s still communication.
And he just has to keep going, together with his parish and God. There. That’s the kicker. That’s what keeps him going. Says the priest with his signature smile: “I’m still naive, I guess, to believe I can make a difference.”