SOUTH PASADENA, Calif. (CNS) — Growing up in Bermuda in an Anglican family, Cambria Smith Tortorelli was an unlikely person to replace a longtime popular pastor as the head of a Catholic parish in Southern California.

Today, Tortorelli is one of the few lay women leading a Catholic parish. Even fewer oversee one of the size and complexity of Holy Family in South Pasadena. She even has been serving as moderator of the archdiocesan pastoral council. Her role is one of the new approaches being taken in U.S. churches to adapt to changing times.

Catholic News Service reporters visited communities across the country over the past few years in a project to learn about some of the parish structures that have evolved in the United States.

As Pope Francis visits the U.S. in September, the CNS parish studies became a way of looking at what it might take to give the pope a sense of some of the many different models that make up the “American Parish.”

Of the 17,340 U.S. parishes, 3,500 lack a resident priest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. CARA notes that before the 1950s, it was rare to have more than one priest per parish in the U.S. After the number of priests-per-parish shot up to 1.79 in the 1960s, there’s been a steady decline, to the current number of .93, less than one per parish.

Canon law sets out specific rules for parish governance, and within its strictures some parishes are finding space for creativity.

Three places CNS visited operate under parish models that may not have been envisioned 50 years ago. They include:

— Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, California, where lay woman Cambria Tortorelli is parish life director;

— St. Francis of Assisi in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which replaced the town’s previous six parishes with a single city-wide community that operates out of three locations;

— St. John by the Sea in Klawock, Alaska, a parish that stretches across an island the size of Delaware, and where until recently an African immigrant priest was its pastor.

Perhaps the model of parish management CNS explored that is least familiar to people in the U.S. is that of Holy Family in South Pasadena. It’s headed by a laywoman, even though there are several priests who work there.

Tortorelli was working for the Valley Interfaith Council, a Los Angeles organization, when she was tapped to become the first parish life director at Holy Family. Her contract there was recently renewed for six years by the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Her transition began with first becoming a Catholic, as an adult, after being raised in the Anglican Church. Exposure to Catholicism while a student at University of Oxford started her on the path. Later, as she studied to make the shift to the Catholic Church, “I discovered I loved theology.”

She earned a master’s degree in theology, and came to realize “I would love to run a parish, but never imagining in a million years I might do it.”

“I had a vocation to be a parish life director before I even knew it was possible,” she said.

Other parishes in the Los Angeles Archdiocese had been led by lay ministers, including some women. But at Holy Family the choice to hire Tortorelli was driven from within the parish.

Msgr. Clement Connolly, longtime pastor of Holy Family who stepped down in 2009, said that while it’s not a model that would work everywhere, “the stars came together” to hire Tortorelli.

Former parish council chair Fred Seymour said when Msgr. Connolly’s retirement was looming, a committee looked at five or six potential models for how Holy Family might stay on its laity-strong path.

“Part of making it work, is that the staff was reorganized for a parish life director to be in charge,” Seymour said. In addition to parish and finance councils, Holy Family has five commissions that advise staff on areas such as administration, education/formation, community life, outreach and worship.

Seymour said it also was helpful symbolically that Msgr. Connolly (who remains at Holy Family as spiritual director) moved his office upstairs at the parish offices, and stays out of anything to do with management. But his obvious support for Tortorelli carries weight.

As for the change to a less visible role, Msgr. Connolly relishes it. “I got my priesthood back,” he said, explaining that he no longer attends meetings and can now focus on the spiritual parts of ministry.

The parish is large: 5,200 registered families. It has an annual budget, not including the school, of nearly $4 million, and a paid staff of 44 that manages 90 ministries including a book- and -gift store and a state-of-the-art television studio for podcasting Sunday Masses. Tortorelli estimated about 1,200 people volunteer in various capacities.

Tortorelli also recognizes that “this model might be unthinkable in some places.”

While there have been lay people running parishes under Canon 517.2 for decades, Msgr. Connolly said it doesn’t often happen at wealthy, thriving parishes. In fact, he said the main people to object to Tortorelli getting the position were other priests, who resented that a well-running parish was not made available to one of them.

One odd quirk of the status of parish life directors is that there are a handful of legal documents that, under canon law, must be signed by a priest-pastor. Holy Redeemer has one who otherwise has no role in the parish.

But marriage licenses do fall within her purview. Tortorelli recalled with a small that when she was married at Holy Redeemer in 2014, she signed the marriage license in two places, first as the bride and then as the head of the parish, noting that it may well have been a first at a Catholic parish in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.