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Turning Things Around at St. Michael and All Angels

Karina Rodriguez was worried when her parish, St. Michael and All Angels in Berwyn was named a distressed parish back in January.

“Our church is like a family,” said Rodriguez, a former senior warden and current member of the vestry. “When words like ‘distressed parish’ came up, naturally we became defensive. We wanted to protect what we’d built.”

But by October, St. Michael’s had shed the distressed parish designation, and strengthened its understanding of church governance and administration in the process. The parish also acquired a new priest-in-charge, the Rev. Jaime Briceño, and a deeper understanding of its mission in a diverse community that includes both Anglos and Latinos.

St. Michael’s story is uniquely its own, but its experience in the distressed parish process illustrates some ways in which the diocese can be helpful to parishes in trouble. Those include technical expertise, emotional support, and, sometimes, financial assistance.

“I think what helped the most was having a relationship with the diocese,” Rodriguez said. “Once we understood what kind of help we could get, things began to fall into place.”

At the root of St. Michael’s problems was a cluster of misunderstandings, about its finances, about the role of the vestry, and, most importantly, about the relationship between the parish and The Angels Daycare facility, which operates on the church’s property.

These misunderstandings came to the fore when the parish’s last rector, the Rev. Carlos Plazas, departed two years ago, taking a significant amount of the parish’s institutional memory with him. After his departure, the parish believed it could no longer afford even a part-time priest, and that its only alternative was to plug on faithfully without one.

“They still had a community, even though they didn’t have a priest,” said Mike Mattson, a diocesan trustee who was on the distressed parish team that worked with St. Michael’s. “The vestry really wanted to make this work.”

The distressed parish team quickly learned that while the parish understood The Angels Daycare, which had been providing affordable day in the community for more than 18 years as a tenant, it was, in fact, a ministry of the parish, originally established “to provide a way for people in the community to come and learn more about St. Michael’s,” Mattson said.

“Once we got in and we looked at the finances, it turns out they are a self-sustaining parish,” he added. “There was enough money being generated by the nursery school to help sustain the parish.”

The parish, which had taken a largely hands-off approach to the daycare, took a while to absorb this new information.

“Because the period of transition has been long and rocky, it took a while for people to understand that, yes, the daycare is your ministry and you have a great blessing and a great presence in the community, but you are responsible for it,” said Briceño, who became priest-in-charge in July.

Diocesan help didn’t end with the work of the distressed parish committee, however. Briceño’s part-time salary and benefits are being paid for the next three years by a grant from Chicago Leadership Fund, a fund within the diocesan endowment. The grant was authorized by the endowment’s trustees.

“He is what they really needed,” Mattson said. “Jaime is a very good leader. He was able to go in and get to know various groups within the church, and get them to work together and talk, and that has been a big thing.”

Briceño says he is learning on the job, especially in overseeing the daycare with the help of head mistress Judith Delgado.

“I think the biggest challenge right now is COVID,” he says. “It makes it really difficult to create a relationship. We’ve done a lot of things fast, and a lot of those have been very good. But I now have to figure out what to do now. With COVID, a lot of the normal things you think are ways to make church or create community or relate to people are not available. It makes it very hard when you do not get to see your parishioners every Sunday or hang out with them at coffee hour.”

But Rodriguez, a vestry member, is enthused about the congregation’s future under Briceño’s leadership.

“Jaime understands how things run,” Rodriguez said. “He is building our website, inviting people to our Facebook page.” She said the parish is beginning to look ahead and consider what other services it can offer to the surrounding community, “whether that’s mental health services or college prep services to students or growing the childcare, getting more people to attend church. Just growing in general.”

photo: the Rev. Jaime Briceño