By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Members of a Catholic congregation at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island say they are heartbroken that services will end after 77 years.
“My daughter received her First Holy Communion there and I was hoping my younger son would as well, but now that is no longer possible,” April Allen said. “I will miss the kindness and understanding of the community, where support is given to those who serve our country.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Navy recently announced that services will no longer be held at the base chapel because a willing priest couldn’t be found. The chapel hasn’t had a priest since Nov. 1.
In a statement, the base pointed to the nationwide shortage of priests.
Dan Olvera, a retired Navy man, said many in the congregation of about 200 feel abandoned by the decision makers. He’s been part of the congregation for more than 20 years.
“Most of us feel they have not done all they could to find a priest,” he said, adding that quitting the search is just the easy choice.
The Navy explained that the base operated under a contract to provide Catholic service since 2004. The contract was intended to serve as a “stop gap” until an active-duty priest could be found, but the contract endured for 15 years.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to find a priest willing and able to fulfill that contract,” the Navy’s statement said, “and due to a significant shortage of Catholic priests nationwide, we do not expect to see an (active duty) Catholic priest assigned to the base for the foreseeable future.”
A decline in the number of men entering the priesthood has led to a priest shortage, with fewer men entering the priesthood than retiring, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Pope Francis has cited demographic changes, scandals in the church and cultural trends as reasons for the shortage.
The Navy said that it has worked with the Archdiocese for Military Services to ensure that the Catholic parishioners are provided care by civilian churches. There are four Catholic churches within a 45-minute drive of the base chapel, including St. Augustine in Oak Harbor.
Parishioner Elaine Morgan, however, said her family moved 17 times when her husband was active duty. They often felt unwelcome in community parishes when there was no chapel on base because people knew Navy families wouldn’t be there more than a few years.
“It was always a comfort to find a Catholic community on the military base,” she said. “We know this is also true for active duty families today.”
Morgan also said she’s concerned for people who live on base and have no transportation.
Erlinda Signo-Warren said her family had been parishioners since 1985. She agreed that sailors need a spiritual home on base.
“These sailors need to have a spiritual leader for them to come to when they need blessings, counseling and guidance,” she said.
Olvera said the base church provided a unique service to active-duty military members and civilian churches may not have the flexibility for military members with dynamic lives.
Also, the Catholic Navy community shares a special kinship, he said. For the last 40 years, the parishioners hosted “Barrack Dinners” for the sailors.
Allen still has hope.
“I’m still praying for a miracle that our church will reopen,” she said.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.