Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Hartford Archdiocese plans to reorganize parishes, close churches as number of Roman Catholics in state drops

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A number of churches will be closed as the Archdiocese of Hartford solidifies plans to reorganize its 212 parishes, but church officials believe those remaining will be full of vibrant, energized Roman Catholics, focused on the church’s mission of spreading the gospel.


Final plans won’t be announced until spring but, according to a recently issued report, the archdiocese’s initial target is 114 parishes or “pastorates.” 

Some will have more than one church open for worship; in others, parishes will use a single campus. 

In each, there will be a pastor who may be assisted by associate priests or deacons, according to the report, “Stewards for Tomorrow,” which has been mailed to 186,000 households in the archdiocese. It can be found at www.stewardsfortomorrow.org.


“In most cases, that decision will be made at a local level,” said the Rev. James Shanley, vicar for pastoral planning for the archdiocese, which encompasses New Haven, Litchfield and Hartford counties. “In some instances the archdiocese might strongly recommend that a church be closed.”


The consolidation is necessary because there are fewer priests and fewer Catholics attending Mass than there were 50 years ago, when immigrants and other Catholics filled churches, Shanley said. “We probably have the right number of priests for the people that are going to Mass at the moment,” Shanley said, but many are nearing retirement age.


In a state with a declining population overall, the numbers of Catholics and priests have suffered a stark drop in the last 50 years, according to the report, prepared by consultant PartnersEdge of Minnesota. 

Between 1965 and 2015, the number of Catholics in the archdiocese dropped 27 percent, from 751,192 to 545,980, while the number of priests fell 65 percent, from 535 to 186. The number of parishes, however, increased during those 50 years, from 195 to 212.


“We do not have enough priests” to serve all the archdiocese’s parishes, Shanley said. Many parishes already are linked, with one priest serving two or three. There have already been a handful of mergers, such as St. Ambrose Parish in North Branford, which continues to meet in two churches.


Another parish undergoing a merger is St. Aedan and St. Brendan Church in the Westville section of New Haven. There, Masses are held only at St. Aedan on Fountain Street during the winter, to save on heating costs. But according to the Rev. Thomas Shepard, pastor, St. Brendan Church on Whalley Avenue will be put up for sale, one of several buildings, including a former school, a rectory and a convent, that the parish no longer needs.


“A merger is like a marriage,” Shepard said of the 480 families in St. Aedan and St. Brendan. He called linking parishes “the first exit on the way to Mergerville.” The difference is that linked parishes have separate congregations, while a merged parish is considered one body. 

“Oftentimes people are not that much wedded to a building; they like particular Mass times,” he said. 


St. Aedan and St. Brendan have been holding joint activities such as annual picnics for years, and lay ministers have been shared as well, so merging was a natural next step, Shepard said.


“These transitions, these changes, are difficult for all of us, including myself,” Shepard said. “The thought that I would be asked to sell church buildings is very difficult for me,” but he added that “the archdiocese looks at us and a couple of other parishes as pioneers in all of this.”


Sheila Masterson, chairwoman of the parish’s pastoral council, said, “We do a tremendous number of joint events and worked really hard to make sure everybody was … comfortable with the new format. … I would be hard-pressed to point out members of the parish who do not think of themselves as members of St. Aedan and St. Brendan.”


With all of the joint activities and forums, “really the parishioners in both parishes were the driving force behind what finally happened,” Masterson said. “It was the members of the church who were driving that train because the church is the people.”


The Rev. John Granato, pastor of the Torrington Cluster of four parishes, said, “We’re trying to figure out how best we can best serve the parishes of Torrington,” which are within 1 mile of each other.”


“We know that we can’t stay as is because four stand-alone parishes does not make sense.” 

He pointed out that while the Catholic Church is growing in other parts of the world, it is not in New England.


Granato, who is assisted by two other priests, said there is anxiety among parishioners but he said he tells them, “We live in faith; we live in hope.”


Shanley said six Litchfield County churches outside of Torrington, now linked in pairs, also are discussing how best to organize themselves.


Across the archdiocese, too many parishes have too small a number of members, Shanley said. When two or more are merged, “there’s a whole new sense of growth,” he said. “People want to go to churches that are full [and] exciting. If the only concern is keeping the building, that’s not something that people want to belong to.”


Other factors that are being considered include how much parking a church has, whether there is a parish school and the church’s state of repair. Some churches, especially in the city, are 100 years old, he said. But some of those are likely to stay open. “St. Francis is massive on Ferry Street, in great condition with a school next to it,” Shanley said.


Like St. Aedan and St. Brendan, Shanley said “linked parishes will become merged in most cases, not always with the parish they’re currently linked with. 


Another church in Fair Haven is St. Rose of Lima on Blatchley Avenue. The Rev. James Manship, pastor, said, “What I’ve been told is that the only decision that’s been made is the formation of pastorates,” which are made up of two or more merged parishes led by one priest.


“I think you’ve got to look at a lot of things,” said Manship. “St. Rose is a kind of unusual parish in that we have strong numbers, we’re able to sustain ourselves in our offertory and we’re growing.” He said more than 1,100 worshippers come to Sunday Masses, offered in both Spanish and English, and there are 480 children in the religious education program.


While many of the urban churches were founded by immigrants such as the Italians, the Poles and the Germans, there is less of an ethnic identity in the parishes now, partly because people have moved to the suburbs. 

Shanley pointed out that St. Donato, originally an Italian-American parish, was closed but that there are two other Italian parishes, St. Michael in Wooster Square and St. Anthony in the Hill. Parishes with small numbers would “rather spend their money on something that’s more mission-oriented” than on heating oil or electricity.


St. Donato is now used as a Catholic Charities site. Shanley said the archdiocese prefers that closed churches be sold to other religious or charitable groups.


“In the suburbs, if parishes are merged together perhaps they’ll decide that one physical plant will be … a community center,” Shanley said. He said if a building is sold the proceeds stay with the congregation and don’t revert to the archdiocese.


He said that when members of parishes that are looking at merging meet, there is some resistance, but “by the time they talk more about it with people from other parishes, they come up with more options.”


“Although these are changes, it’s not because of failure on the community’s part or anyone’s part,” Shanley said. “It’s sad for people to have their church closed or have it merged or have it used for something else, but that’s the reality today.”


Will Clark, chief operating officer of the New Haven Public Schools, is on a committee that is discussing the reorganization, composed of members of the city’s 13 parishes. “The history and individual strengths of each parish and the people in it are really valuable,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of trepidation among a lot of parishioners out there … and what we’ve tried to do is look at the bigger picture.”


Clark, a member of St. Joseph Church on Edwards Street, said that, whatever plan is developed, it should not be implemented without looking at each parish’s unique strengths. 

“You’ve got to start with: What’s the vision? What’s the theological rallying cry of the work that we do? … It should be very up-front and should be very transparent and if it takes a little bit longer, then so be it.”


Shanley said the archdiocese would like to put more effort into evangelizing on college campuses, to increase membership and possibly recruit more priests. “We want to make sure they are ministered to as well,” he said.


Other faith communities also are facing shrinking membership.  

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New­hallville recently closed because of low membership and a high degree of debt.

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