Immigration issue results in turnover at Vermont’s Catholic churches
BY JASON STARR
A shortage of Catholic priests combined with an unexpected slowdown in immigration processing has led Williston’s Immaculate Heart of Mary church to experience a revolving door of faith leaders in recent years.
In June, the church on Williston Road welcomed its fourth priest in five years, Father Brendan Murphy. Murphy lives on the church property and is also responsible for Richmond’s Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church.
He replaces Father Rod Oliver Saligan, an immigrant from the Philippines who led the church for a year and a half until he was forced to return to his native country because of unexpected delays in establishing permanent residency in the U.S.
Murphy comes to Williston from Dartmouth College, where he led the college’s Catholic community. Prior to that, he was at the University of Delaware and Providence College. Priests move churches at the behest of the Catholic Diocese, where bishops decide how best to fill the needs of the region’s Catholic community. Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Catholic Diocese of Burlington asked Murphy to come to Williston.
“I’m enjoying it,” said Murphy, a native of Lowell, Mass. “When you move, it takes a while to get settled in, but I’m looking forward to exploring the area, serving the parish, the community and being part of the broader community as well… Everyone has been very welcoming to me and patient with me as I get settled in.”
Murphy administers the church’s finances and leads nearly daily services in Williston and Richmond. Williston has about 200 member families, according to Pam Kozikowski, an active church parishioner and member of the church’s finance council.
Kozikowski said it was hard to say goodbye to Father Saligan, who arrived in October 2019, and had endeared himself to parishioners with his intelligence and kindness.
“He was a joy to be around,” Kozikowski said. “He was all of the things you would want in a priest.”
“We are used to it and we expect it,” Kozikowski said of priest changes. “Emotionally, it can be difficult when a priest leaves because we’ve gotten to know him, but all priests have their strengths, so we always learn new things and have positive changes when we have a new priest.
“Father Brendan has a different style, as all priests do, and I’m sure we will be learning a lot from him,” she continued. “Everyone seems to like him, even though we didn’t want Father (Saligan) to leave. It’s all positive … It helps us grow.”
Murphy’s arrival comes at a time when people are coming back to church services after pandemic restrictions.
“It’s been a very special time for the parish community for people to come back who have been away for so long,” said Murphy.
“We’ve all felt a sense of isolation from the pandemic. It’s been really wonderful to see people returning to church and we want to continue to welcome people back.”
Bishop Coyne announced in June that three pastors from the Philippines and one from Nigeria would be returning to their home countries. Their visas had run out and processing their permanent residency (green cards) had taken longer than expected. The shakeup has left five Catholic churches in Vermont without priests. Bringing in priests from other countries was a way to bolster the already diminished ranks of the American priesthood.
“I’ve tried to do everything I can to make sure that as many parishes and churches will continue to have pastors to care for them and I think we will be OK,” Coyne said. “I know it will be difficult for a while for those ‘priestless’ parishes, but we will try and provide as much coverage as possible for Sunday Mass and the sacraments.”
Father Saligan and the other immigrant priests are expected to return to Vermont next year. But Saligan won’t necessarily be re-assigned to the Williston and Richmond churches.
“The immigration complication was completely unexpected,” Coyne said in June. “My staff began the process for the green cards in what we understood to be a timely fashion, only to discover that we were at least a year too late for the priests to be able to stay. Even though these priests want to stay with their parishes here in Vermont, they must go home now so that they can return to Vermont in 12 months.”