One priest ministers to 6 W. Md. parishes

On Palm Sunday morning, the Rev. Jim Hannon awoke at 5:30, prayed and then exercised on a treadmill for 20 minutes. By 7:30, the priest was set for a day of ministry in Western Maryland.

That's when the real workout began.

The 55-year-old Hannon pastors six churches in Allegany and Garrett counties, the result of a priest shortage that the Archdiocese of Baltimore faces in Maryland's westernmost jurisdictions.

The number of priests in the region, on the decline for years, has dwindled further since 2004, from 14 to 10. As Catholic churches throughout the world celebrate Holy Week, the sacred - and busy - period on the Christian liturgical calendar, Hannon's road-warrior routine has become even more frenetic.

Palm Sunday was an apt illustration.

First came an 8 a.m. service at St. Michael Church in Frostburg, then a change of clothes before driving to Grantsville for St. Ann Church's 10 a.m. service.

An 11:30 brunch-fundraiser at a church couple's home was next, followed by the annual Palm Sunday parish dinner at St. Peter in Westernport, about 40 minutes away.

Back home that evening, Hannon prepared oil stocks to take to the cathedral in Baltimore the next day for Chrism Mass and did administrative work.

"It's great to see how he manages in a kind of uncomplicated way," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. "He has a natural way to relating to everybody and takes on the challenges he does with great serenity."

A Day Planner for Hannon would read like War and Peace. On a given day he goes from celebrating Mass to performing administrative duties to visiting the sick to holding staff meetings to raising money.

Moreover, his service comes at a time when St. Michael is closing its elementary school and St. Ann is holding services at a funeral home while rebuilding a church destroyed by fire nearly three years ago.

"It is very difficult to make decisions for one parish, let alone six," said St. Ann parishioner Jennifer Adams. "He is truly a shepherd and has taken on that role beautifully."

Hannon grew up in the Armistead Gardens neighborhood of Baltimore. He attended Cardinal Gibbons and Loyola College and the Theological College at Catholic University in Washington.

He went to Western Maryland in July 2005 to pastor two churches - St. Peter of Westernport and St. Gabriel of Barton. A year later, he was named pastor of five more churches: St. Michael, St. Ann, St. Mary of Lonaconing, St. Joseph of Midland and St. Patrick of Mount Savage.

He served all seven with two associate pastors before one left last summer for an assignment in Baltimore and the other left in January to take over at St. Patrick.

"I ask him if he's tired, and he says, 'No.' He just goes and goes and goes," said Betty Clark of Westernport, who attends St. Peter and St. Gabriel. "He is extremely well organized."

Hannon said the total membership of the six churches is about 1,500 families. His schedule is set so that he can visit each parish at least every other weekend. He emphasizes that he receives much help from area priests (one from a college and another from a hospital) as well as church staff.

Often his duties don't end until late in the evening, or just in time to watch his favorite TV show - Law and Order.

"No one day is really typical in terms of something happening constantly," Hannon said during a recent visit to archdiocese headquarters in Baltimore. "The constant is change.

"But the change is always within the structure of attending to the various needs of the parishes and the people whom we serve."

The region comprising Garrett and Allegany counties has experienced falling numbers in membership in recent years. The trend is similar elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said that there were 837 registered families in Garrett County last year, down from 1,078 five years ago. In Allegany County, there are 8,734 families, down from 10,024.

The number of parishes has mostly held steady, however, with 13 total in the two counties, down one from 2004.

O'Brien expressed hope that the number of ministers in the archdiocese in general, and Western Maryland in particular, will grow in the years to come.

"We should have three or four or five more pastors out there," he said. "[Hannon is] doing the work of all those potential pastors. We hope this will not go on forever."

Hannon doesn't seem to mind. He is quick to point out that there are single parishes in the archdiocese with more families than the 1,500 he serves.

"Many people think that being a pastor of six churches is a huge job. But all things have to be seen in context," he said. "Our situation is unique in that our church sites are spread throughout a wide area."

It might take Hannon 40 minutes to drive from his residence at St. Peter's in Westernport to the most distant church, St. Ann's in Grantsville.

"That can pose difficulties in the winter, but all in all, things run smoothly in this arrangement," Hannon said.

Some days are more challenging than others. On a recent Saturday, for example, Hannon performed back-to-back funerals, an hour of confession, then back-to-back Masses - all spread over three parishes.

"That was a pretty intense day. I was really tired when that day ended," Hannon said. "I was able to make it in terms of travel time, but it was a matter of shifting from grieving people to a regular Mass crowd."

As a priest he must always be on call. Each parish phone line instructs callers to dial a second number in an emergency, which is forwarded to Hannon's cell phone.

The priest insists he seldom feels overwhelmed.

"I love my work, I enjoy serving the church in [Western Maryland]," he said. "I find meaning in my life in doing the work of a priest.

"There are some times, certainly, when a day or a specific task is tough. There are times when I need to step away and take some time away. If I can keep a balanced view of what is going on around me, I seem to be fine."

Parishioners have grown accustomed to having a priest who serves multiple parishes.

"There are people who have complained, 'We can't get to know our priest, because there aren't enough,' " Adams said. "What I say to them is … 'You find out what your priest needs help with and you help him and you will be connected.' "

In Western Maryland, she said, Hannon makes up for the shortage.

"He knows us by our first names," Clark said. "He's a blessing in disguise."

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