OLEAN — Olean’s two Catholic churches will soon be linked under a single pastor.
The Rev. Patrick Melfi will succeed the Very Rev. Gregory Dobson as pastor and rector of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, while also continuing on as pastor of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, both parishes announced over the weekend.
It will be the first time since 1895 that only one pastor serves Catholics in Olean, according to St. Mary’s officials.
“It certainly spurs the opportunity to develop more of a sense of a wider Olean Catholic community,” said Melfi, 57, an Olean native who became St. John’s pastor just last year and will be the ninth pastor in the history of St. Mary’s when he begins Aug. 1. “That’s kind of the goal at this point.”
The decision was made by the Most Rev. Richard Malone, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who in a letter of appointment stated Melfi’s term will last six years.
While noting Melfi will face challenges with the added responsibilities that come with a basilica, Dobson said the priest has been attending St. Mary’s council meetings since last year and is up to date on the parish’s finances.
“I think the stage is set for a smooth transition,” said Dobson, who is retiring July 31 after 21 years as St. Mary’s pastor.
Melfi said he joined St. John’s with the understanding he may be chosen to succeed Dobson at St. Mary’s. He added the idea to link the two parishes goes back to the diocese’s Journey of Faith and Grace campaign 10 years ago, which either merged or linked many diocesan parishes. A total of 77 churches were closed.
Both Melfi and Dobson maintained St. John’s and St. Mary’s are for now only being linked, not merged, as the parishes will remain separate entities with separate trustees. St. Mary’s has approximately 1,350 families, while St. John’s has approximately 450.
While the parishes themselves are not merging, it’s likely more of their programs will. Melfi said St. John’s and St. Mary’s could benefit from collaborative ministry and employees working at both sites.
Parishioners should also expect some changes in Mass schedules.
“We have to look at the different schedules because, obviously, we’re going to be short a priest and we’ve got to manage both parishes,” said Melfi, who plans to continue residing at the St. John’s rectory.
As for his goals as St. Mary’s pastor, Melfi said they’ll be similar to what they are at St. John’s: bringing people back to the church.
“Certainly the goal always is to reconnect with our family and friends who have decided, for one reason or another, not to come,” he said, “and of course reaching out to the next generation, seeing what we can do to bring them back into practice.”
For Melfi, the assignment to St. Mary’s is something of a homecoming. He was an altar boy at the church and attended the former St. Mary’s School as the youngest of seven siblings. Melfi said becoming St. Mary’s pastor would have “been a point of pride” for his father, who died in 2010 and was a “daily communicate” at St. Mary’s.
After growing up in Olean, Melfi left for nearly 40 years. He served in the U.S. Navy, earned a civil engineering degree from the University at Buffalo and even worked as a designer of bridges for the New York State Department of Transportation.
While he first thought about joining the priesthood after his honorable discharge from the Navy, it wasn’t until 2001 that he attended Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.
Since being ordained in 2006, he has served as a parochial vicar at St. Christopher’s Parish in Tonawanda and as part of the formation team for seminarians at Christ the King. He also has prior experience being pastor of two linked parishes, as Melfi led both Our Lady of Peace Parish in Salamanca and the former St. Patrick’s Church in Limestone at the same time.
Dobson said he will continue to meet with Melfi during the next few months to prepare for the Aug. 1 transition. He’ll also be able to counsel him for a few months afterward as well.
While he will begin a temporary reassignment at St. Joseph’s Church in Gowanda July 31, Dobson revealed Monday he will continue living at the St. Mary’s rectory during that time. He expects to eventually be given a more permanent assignment closer to his family in the Buffalo area.
When asked for his advice to Melfi, Dobson provided a relatively simple answer: love the space and love the people.
“If you love the space and you love the people, a lot of things work out just fine,” he said.
Melfi gave thanks to Dobson for the work he’s done at both St. Mary’s and in the community. He also thanked Malone for entrusting him with the responsibility to oversee St. Mary’s.
“I certainly look forward to working with the wider Catholic community here in Olean,” he said.
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)