Nun to lead Penn Hills parish

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In response to a shrinking number of priests, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has appointed a Penn Hills nun to be its first "parish life collaborator," a person who will oversee parish obligations that do not have to be performed by a priest.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Sister Dorothy Pawlus will assume many administrative duties at St. Bartholomew in Penn Hills, but sacramental duties there will remain in the hands of a priest.
Click photo for larger image.

Sister Dorothy Pawlus, 49, will assume many of the administrative duties at St. Bartholomew Parish after the Rev. David J. Bonnar concludes his six-year term as pastor next month. Sacramental duties -- such as saying Mass, hearing confessions, and performing baptisms and weddings -- will be performed by the Rev. James A. McDonough of St. Regis Parish in Oakland.

The steady decline in the number of priests serving the diocese's 214 parishes prompted then-Bishop Donald Wuerl last spring to approve a plan to appoint parish life collaborators in parishes with no resident priest. Two dozen priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh serve as pastors for two or more parishes.

The parish life collaborator will have 40 responsibilities, including worship, education, pastoral service and administration.

"This is sort of a trial," said the Rev. Ronald P. Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese. "It's the first time in our diocese, the first time in the state of Pennsylvania, and we need to look at it and see if it is as effective as it can be."

In the year since the new position was announced, seven applicants -- two deacons, two lay women, a lay man and two nuns -- have been approved. Others will be announced in the months ahead.

"If there ever were enough priests in the future where we could staff parishes with priests, then it's possible that the role of the parish life collaborator would not be necessary any longer," Father Lengwin said. "But that's not the way the trend is going. We're expecting that there will be more parishes in the future that will also have parish life collaborators."

Father Lengwin said the diocese has high hopes for the program, which has been modeled after programs that have worked in other parts of the country for decades. And while Sister Dorothy is the first parish life collaborator, he said it would be wrong to place the burden of the local program's success on her.

"She's quite capable," he said, "but different parishes are unique in their own way. There's a lot of cooperation that needs to take place here."

Father Lengwin said the selection of Sister Dorothy at St. Bartholomew, where she has served as pastoral associate and social service minister for three years, was announced first because "this one is a natural."

"She has worked very closely with the pastor, Father David Bonnar, and she met all the requirements that are necessary for the parish life collaborator," he said. "And the parish has great affection for both of them. They're going to hate to see him go, but they have great affection for her."

Sister Dorothy, who moved to Pittsburgh from Cleveland in 1985, has a master's degree in theology and pastoral ministry and an undergraduate degree in business.

But while much of her new work will involve administrative duties, she said she is eager to embrace the other aspects of her role, particularly those involving St. Bartholomew School.

"Without having a priest pastor, [the job] will really entail all the aspects [of overseeing a parish]," she said. "And I will work with the principal [at the school] in ensuring that the Catholic education continues in the same tradition that it has."

The announcement of her new job, she acknowledged, is bittersweet. While it's a wonderful opportunity for her, she said, it's a disappointing reflection on the state of the priesthood.

"If there were enough priests, then they wouldn't need this position," she said. "The fact that they do is a wake-up call for us as Catholics to pray for vocations and encourage vocations in the priesthood in young men. One of the things we will do here is form a vocation prayer group.

"It's sad that it has to happen. I was talking with some people the other day, and they were saying how it used to be a big thing to have a priest in your family. Now, I don't think people look at it that way."

The diocese said the 1,300 families who make up St. Bartholomew Parish will be invited to attend an informational session at which any questions they have will be addressed. Still, Sister Dorothy said, most of the parishioners she spoke with Sunday -- after Father Bonnar announced he was leaving -- were encouraging.

"People were very receptive," she said. "I think even more than I thought they would be. They're very sad to see [Father Bonnar] leave, because he's very well loved here. But I think because they know me, and they've interacted with me, and they've experienced me, they're a lot more comfortable with me as opposed to bringing somebody from the outside in."

Sister Dorothy assumes her new duties July 9 and will be installed by auxiliary Bishop Paul J. Bradley in a July 15 ceremony.

Dan Majors can be reached at or 412-263-1456.


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