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Immigration issue has diocese scrambling to fill priest vacancies in Vermont

Published: May. 3, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2021 at 6:02 AM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Multiple churches across Vermont will be without a resident priest for at least the next year. The problem is these parish priests are foreign nationals and their stays in the U.S. are expiring.

The church was unaware the application process for a green card has changed. For the priests, this means their worker visas will expire before their applications are complete.

“We would never want priests here illegally. We are careful about that,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

Three priests from the Philippines and one from Nigeria have legally been in the U.S. on religious worker visas.

But when the church went to help them apply for green cards giving them permanent legal status, they discovered the application process takes about a year-and-a-half longer than it had before. Which means their visas will expire before the application process is completed.

“This is a big blow,” Coyne said.

The priests can reapply for new visas but only after being back in their home countries for 12 months.

The diocese is also losing two more priests to retirement and a transfer, leaving some parishes without a priest for at least a year.

“This loss of six guys in one swoop is extraordinary for us,” the bishop said.

The Diocese needs 40 priests to maintain their churches in Vermont.

The turn to people from other countries in recent years has been part of an effort to make progress in meeting a long-term priest shortage.

“It’s a shame that we’re losing so many priests because we already struggle as a diocese,” said Janet Cassarino, a parishioner at Christ the King in Rutland. “It would be great if we had as many priests as we needed to fill all of our spots in our diocese.”

Coyne says priests will shift around parishes to cover vacancies.

“Some won’t have regular mass but close by so they can go to other parishes by car. And as soon as I can, I will get them resident priests again,” he said.

The parishes affected by those lost priests are in Putney, Troy, Grand Isle County, West Rutland and Proctor.

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