Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Hartford Archdiocese Planning To Close And Merge Churches

Image result for Hartford ArchdioceseThe Archdiocese of Hartford is considering closing or merging close to 100 parishes as it grapples with aging buildings, fewer Catholic households and a looming shortage of priests.

Rev. James A. Shanley, who is in charge of pastoral planning for the archdiocese, said no decisions have been made about which churches would be shuttered or consolidated. 

But he said major changes are needed to ensure the church's financial stability and strengthen the Catholic community in Connecticut.

"There's been a change in population," Shanley said. "Many of the big churches in the Hartford archdiocese were built by immigrant groups in late 1800s and early 1900s and they did a phenomenal job. But they were built for gigantic populations we don't have anymore."

The total number of Catholics living within the archdiocese has dropped by 27 percent since 1965. During that same span, average Mass attendance fell by nearly 70 percent.

The archdiocese, which oversees 212 parishes in Hartford, Litchfield and New Haven counties, has spent the last year working with a Minnesota-based consulting firm that specializes in diocesan and parish planning, to develop a reorganization plan. 

Recommendations are not expected until the first quarter of 2017, at the earliest, Shanley said.

Although the number of American Catholics has held steady at roughly 23 percent of the U.S. population, major demographic shifts have spurred a sweeping realignment. Catholic dioceses in the old industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest are shrinking and consolidating, while those in the Sun Belt are booming.

"Places like North Carolina and Texas are building churches," said Thomas Rzeznik, a professor at Seton Hall University who studies the history of the U.S. Catholic Church. "The growth is happening in the South and the West."

The Catholic contraction in other cities has been painful, as parishioners mourn the loss of institutions deeply entwined with their lives.

"These were supposed to be monuments to the Catholic presence in urban neighborhoods," Rzeznik said. "There was an understanding among Catholics that these were going to be here, not just for you but your children and grandchildren as well. They were supposed to be permanent, immutable and testaments to the ages."

In Connecticut, worshippers at St. Margaret Church in Waterbury were shaken to learn their church was on a list of potential closures published in the Republican-American newspaper last week.

"I'm a cradle Catholic and I support our church in so many ways," said Jackie Boulier Tiul, who was baptized at St. Margaret, where her family has worshipped for 50 years. "I do believe in entrusting this to the archbishop, but at the same time I love my church, I love the building and more importantly, I love the people."

Shanley said no decisions have been made about St. Margaret or any of the other parishes in the archdiocese. Closing churches is a complicated undertaking, logistically as well as emotionally. Each parish is independently incorporated and there are detailed rules under Connecticut law governing their dissolution.

Under a plan published on the archdiocese website, parishes would be reorganized into about 114 "pastorates," but that number could be reduced to 100 as planning continues. A pastorate is a single parish with a church and one or more worship sites, campuses and ministries, the memo explains.

Pastorates will be led by a pastor, but each may have several associate priests and deacons assigned to it, who will each have designated responsibilities. A maximum of four Masses per weekend will be celebrated by each priest in each pastorate.

If the archdiocese adopts this model, there will be about 100 pastorates in the initial phase, from 2017-19. That number would be further reduced with a goal of approximately 85 pastorates by 2027.

While some buildings will continue to house stand-alone parishes, others may be consolidated under a single staff. Some structures could be converted to youth centers, homeless shelters or other facilities tied to the Catholic church's mission, Shanley said. Others could be sold to businesses, although the archdiocese has stipulated that no former churches will be used as restaurants or bars.

No cost savings was included in the plan, but church officials say it's less about saving money than revitalizing the institution.

"These are difficult decisions for everybody," said the Rev. James Manship, pastor at St. Rose of Lima in New Haven. "Unfortunately, we have an infrastructure for a church in the 1960s, but we are in 2016 and 2017."

Old church buildings, with their soaring sanctuaries and thin stained glass windows, are extraordinarily expensive to heat and maintain, Shanley said. Money spent on utilities drains resources from programs for the poor and other central elements of the church's mission, he said.

"It is sad," Shanley said. "There is great emotional attachment. But as people think about it, they realize that small numbers of people cannot possibly sustain these grand, gothic buildings. Nor do they want all their money going to paying for oil and electricity."

Manship said the changes present the opportunity for Catholics to answer Pope Francis' call to be "a missionary church, to be a church of the poor and for the poor."

"We as Christians, we understand that the dying and transformation are a way for us to come to a deeper life with Christ and, hopefully, with the poor and with one another," Manship said. "This is a call to embrace the cross and it's difficult for all of us. We have to do it in faith and hope and love."

A steep drop in the number of priests is also driving consolidation efforts. The archdiocese currently has 192 priests, but within five years, 22 percent of them will be 75, the age at which they are eligible to retire.

Sara Tellerico is a parishioner at St. Aloysius Church in the Plantsville section of Southington, with her husband and four children. Tellerico said while it's sad to see parishes and schools closing or merging, the current structure is unsustainable for the church's future.

Tellerico said she's optimistic that the changes will unite the Catholic community.

"What we don't have in quantity anymore, we can bring together with quality," she said. "By combining parishes, the archdiocese is providing us a way to build and expand our community. We see more people who look like us, pray like us, have families like ours. We see that we're not that different … which builds a parish up."
A generation ago, when church officials were faced with the task of closing parishes, the process was often shrouded in secrecy and led to confusion and anger. The Hartford archdiocese is taking a more open approach, posting many of the documents and reams of data on its website.

But it's about more than crunching numbers, Shanley said. "We are praying as well," he said. "We're trying to discern the will of God."

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