Bob DeWitt of the Pittsburgh Diocese, who conducted the meeting, emphasized that no decisions have made and the configurations could change. He said the diocese can no longer staff and support all existing churches because of a declining number of priests and church attendance which has fallen by 40 percent in recent years.
He presented two models of what the new configuration could look like.
One, "a two-parish model," would split Catholic churches in the county into two "campuses," which DeWitt defined as a church and its related buildings.
The first campus would include St. Joseph the Worker, Mary Mother of Hope, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus parishes. It would be staffed by a pastor, another priest, a priest chaplain, a deacon, four lay ecclesial ministers and would serve a population of 43,700 with 2,700 who attend Mass weekly.
The second campus would include St. Camillus, Christ the King and St. James the Apostle parishioners. It would be served by one pastor, a deacon, two lay ecclesial ministers and serve a population of 27,700 parishioners with 1,000 weekly Mass goers.
The second, a "one-parish model," would combine all the above seven parishes into one new parish and also would have two campuses. It would be served by one pastor, two additional priests, one priest chaplain, two deacons, four lay ecclesial ministers for 71,400 parishioners, 3,800 of whom attend weekly Mass.
It has not been decided under either configuration which churches would remain open and those attending Wednesday's session were given the opportunity to vote on their preferences under both proposals.
Holy Reedemer Parish in Ellwood City would be excluded from both configurations and would instead by combined with Beaver or Butler County parishes, DeWitt said.
He invited Catholics in the county to suggest alternatives, and said the diocese is open to other solutions to achieve the same end.
Wednesday's meeting at St. Mary's was the first of eight local meetings in which Catholics from the seven parishes are asked to attend and give feedback. Meeting times and locations have been announced in the church bulletins. About 100 attended Wednesday.
The timeline for decision calls for meetings and feedback from parishioners followed by recruitment of parish team leaders who will engage in several levels of consultations.
The pastors and teams will ultimately give feedback to an advisory body of parishioners from across the diocese, which will submit a recommendation to Bishop David Zubik between June and December, 2017 . The bishop will announce decisions in early 2018.
In a previous downsizing several years ago, several Lawrence County churches were closed and parishioners consolidated into new, combined parishes.
Other, similar meetings are going on throughout the six-county Pittsburgh diocese.