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Posted June 28, 2009

Pace of parish closings in US
has quickened over past 20 years

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Parish closings are nothing new in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church, but the pace of closures and mergers has accelerated over the past 20 years, as several factors have converged.

One factor has been the shrinking population base of many parishes.

Catholic families in the city and country have fewer children now than they did two generations ago.

In urban areas, the post-World War II baby boom, accompanied by economic expansion, led people to forsake crowded city neighborhoods for new suburban developments. And in rural areas, as economic opportunities dried up, younger generations found them in metropolitan areas.

And in the 1960s, racial unrest spurred white flight by people of all faiths from cities, and Catholics were no exception.

Released this March, the third American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College of Hartford, Conn., found that the U.S. Catholic population has shifted away from the Northeast toward the Southwest.

Catholics in immigrant communities in the Northeast and industrial Midwest "insisted that their kids get a good education," but once educated, "kids didn't stay where the traditional immigrant families were," according to Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University in Washington.

They have moved out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, she said, "and out of the Rust Belt and into the Sun Belt ... out of the rural areas and into the Sun Belt."

So in those regions, some U.S. parishes are big and getting bigger, almost on the scale of "megaparishes," according to Gautier.

Another factor in parish closings has been a smaller number of priests available for parish ministry, along with the higher costs of maintaining aging parish physical plants. In some parishes, the sole priest often doubled as the boiler engineer to save money.

One of the first large waves of closures in the U.S. occurred in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1988, when a plan to shutter 46 of 114 city parishes was unveiled.

Although the number of parishes to be closed was trimmed to 31 in 1989 -- with another five closed the following year -- outraged Catholics protested, rallied against their church leaders and filed appeals in civil court in Detroit and church courts at the Vatican. Their appeals ultimately failed.

The Detroit closures ranked in the top-10 news stories among Catholic News Service client editors in both 1988 and '89.

In 1990, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed 52 parishes. Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago said it needed to be done to help address a $28.9 million deficit the archdiocese had sustained the year before.

The cardinal also cited dwindling Mass attendance and rising parish operating costs. Another reason given was that some churches were situated mere blocks from each other -- to serve different ethnic Catholics generations earlier. The Vatican upheld one appeal of a church closure.

The number of parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh shrank dramatically after an initiative in 1988 by then-Bishop Donald W. Wuerl to reorganize the diocese, citing large population shifts and fewer priests as reasons to close or combine parishes in some areas while enlarging or opening new parishes in others. Over the course of the reorganization, the number of parishes dropped from 309 at the end of 1991 to 220 in 1994.

The Pittsburgh reorganization also was subject to appeals to Vatican courts, which ruled in each appeal that Bishop Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington, acted in accordance with church law.

Parish closings announced in 2004 in the Archdiocese of Boston continue to generate rancor, as some parish properties closed by the archdiocese remain occupied by members of those parishes.

The archdiocese, which was still reeling from the clergy sexual abuse scandal that exploded there in 2002, announced that 70 of its 357 parishes would be shut down as part of a "reconfiguration." In the end, 63 of the 70 were suppressed.

At a 2006 press conference, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston said parishes were not closed merely to raise revenue.

Aging clergy, the cost of building maintenance and the close proximity of many parishes necessitated many parish closings, he added. The cardinal also said that no money from the sale of closed churches or from parish collections was used to pay for abuse settlements or for the ongoing support of victims.

Although dioceses with large urban cores have had to face shrinking numbers of Catholics and parishes, rural dioceses are not exempt.

For example, in 2004, the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., announced that it would close 33 parishes by the end of 2010. Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo said population shifts and declines account for the closings.

All the parishes scheduled for closure contain a total of 798 households, less than 3 percent of the diocese's 28,000 households, although the closed parishes make up 21 percent of the 2004 diocesan total of 159 parishes. One hundred parishes opened in the diocese during 1900-1910, but Bishop Aquila noted that, since 1871, 172 parishes, missions and stations had been closed in the diocese.

Both rural and urban dioceses have tried clustering two or more parishes under the leadership of a priest or a pastoral team headed by a priest to keep more parishes open and maintain a Catholic presence in city neighborhoods and small towns alike.

Meeting the needs of Catholic communities that are growing, like those in the Southwest, can be a challenge for the church, because "it is extremely expensive to build new now, especially when you compare relative to a century ago," Gautier said.

"Bishops, I think, are trying to make do as best as they can by having more Masses and having larger spaces," she said in an interview with CNS.

"Some dioceses require now that if you are going to the diocese for funding for a new build, that you have to agree to build a worship space that holds 1,200 people, 1,500 people," she explained. "That is of a megaparish size, and that's to, I guess, more efficiently accommodate the large numbers that have been moving into that part of the country," primarily the South and West.

The megaparish phenomenon "does solve the immediate problem of how do we serve all these people when we don't have enough priests to go around," Gautier said.

"But it does pose the challenge of how do we build a strong and vibrant Christian community when you've got all these people sitting around," she said. "It's possible, but it has to be done in a different way than (is done) in a smaller, more intimate setting: Create a welcoming environment in a massive space."