Pastoral planning must comply with canon, civil law

By JOANNE FOX
joannef@scdiocese.org

Ministry 2025 – pastoral planning for the Diocese of Sioux City – will involve the consolidation of a number of parishes into 31 clusters and nine Hispanic ministry associations.

This process must not only comply with the canon law of the Catholic Church but also the civil law of the State of Iowa.

According to Msgr. Mark Duchaine, adjutant judicial vicar in the diocesan tribunal office, there is a specific process that must be followed when parishes combine to form a new parish with a new name.5-4Duchaine, Msgr. Mark2

“To form a new parish, the bishop needs to consult the Presbyteral Council (council of priests) first,” he said. “Failing to do so would nullify the process.”

Msgr. Duchaine pointed out that agreement with the bishop on the part of the Presbyteral Council is not necessary, but the members must be consulted.

“Once that consultation has taken place, a new parish is established by a formal decree, which must be published in The Catholic Globe,” he said. “That decree would indicate the name of the parish, the geographical boundaries that comprise it and various financial issues.”

If the new parish is being formed from already existing parishes – such as those in Fort Dodge or Le Mars – then, those parishes must be suppressed/closed, Msgr. Duchaine explained.

“Parishes, such as Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart in Fort Dodge or St. James and St. Joseph in Le Mars no longer exist as separate parishes, though the church buildings continue to function under that name as part of the newly-established parish of Holy Trinity or All Saints,” he said. “This process would also require consultation with the Presbyteral Council and a formal decree published in The Globe.”

The new parish must also be registered as a civil corporation with the State of Iowa, according to Dale Tigges, a Sioux City attorney.

“The term ‘parish’ is not defined under civil law,” he said. “However, most parishes are organized as separate nonprofit corporations for civil law purposes. Therefore, a consolidation or merger of parishes under canon law will usually involve the consolidation or merger of those nonprofit corporations under civil law.”

The merger process will usually take one of two forms: A new parish corporation, such as the process in Fort Dodge and Le Mars, or into an existing parish corporation, Tigges noted.

“In civil law with a new corporation, the separate existence of the old parish corporations ends,” he said. “The old parish corporations are merged into a new parish corporation, which receives all of the assets and takes over all of the liabilities of the old parish corporations.”

For example in Le Mars, All Saints Catholic Parish was established as a new corporation, and the assets and liabilities of St. James and St. Joseph were transferred to All Saints. St. Joseph Parish in Struble is an oratory under the auspices of All Saints.

“The separate existence of St. James and St. Joseph, each as a separate corporation, ended,” Tigges said. “However, it should be noted that St. James Church and St. Joseph Church are worship sites and hold liturgical services for All Saints Catholic Parish corporation.”

A merger into an existing parish corporation usually involves the merger of a less viable parish corporation into a larger, more viable, parish corporation which is the surviving parish corporation.

“The surviving parish corporation receives all of the assets and takes over all of the liabilities of less viable parish corporation,” Tigges said. “The separate existence of the less viable parish corporation ends.”

In both cases, according to civil law, the surviving corporation will acquire donor restricted funds or endowment funds subject to the restrictions placed on the gifts by the donors, Tigges clarified.

“Any bequest, devise, gift, grant or promise contained in a will or other instrument of donation, subscription or conveyance, that is made to a constituent corporation and which takes effect or remains payable after the merger, inures to the surviving corporation, unless the will or other instrument otherwise specifically provides,” he said.

Ministry 2025 has proposed 38 parishes will move to oratory status and those changes are impacted by canon law.

“When a parish church becomes an oratory, it loses its canonical status as a parish and its property, boundaries and members are subsumed into whatever new parish is being formed, or into an already existing parish,” Msgr. Duchaine said. “The building retains its name and can be used for liturgical purposes: weddings, funerals, baptisms, anniversaries – at the discretion of the pastor – according to whatever limits or restrictions have been placed by decree of the diocesan bishop.”

All parishioners of the oratory automatically become members of the assuming parish unless the parishioners opt out and register elsewhere in writing, pointed out Royce Ranniger, director of operations for the Diocese of Sioux City.

“It is expected that the assuming parish will re-organize their leadership and create a new Finance Council with members from the oratory,” he said. “It is expected, that although there are only special Masses at the oratory, all upkeep of the building and grounds must be maintained. For example, the assuming parish cannot shut off the utilities and not take care of the grounds of the oratory. The assuming parish must also keep insurance on the oratory building.”

Msgr. Duchaine emphasized if an oratory chooses to close, then the building may be sold or donated to a private party, so long as its future purpose is not contradictory to its former status as a parish church.

“In other words, turning a church into a bar or a dance hall would not be acceptable,” he said. “In some instances former churches have been sold to local non-Catholic congregations for their use as a new place of worship; St. John the Baptist Church in Quimby is a good example of that. In many instances, if there is no provision for subsequent use, then the building would be demolished.”

Special accommodating may be permitted for cemeteries associated with oratories, Ranniger noted.

“However, the assuming parish is responsible for the care of the oratory’s cemetery, or cemeteries, in perpetuity,” he said.

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