ROCHESTER — Mercy Sister Mary Bernarde Entress has seen many worshipers recently relocate to Holy Family Church after their own parishes closed. However, their stays at Holy Family probably were much shorter than they had envisioned.
“Now they’re moving again,” remarked Sister Entress, the parish’s secretary since 1999.
Holy Family, located on the corner of Jay and Ames streets, was scheduled to celebrate its final Mass on June 29, following the announcement in May that it would close. The Catholic school located on Holy Family’s campus also closed in June.
Holy Family becomes the seventh Catholic church in the heart of Rochester’s west side to cease operation since May 2006. Holy Rosary and Most Precious Blood closed earlier this year. St. Anthony of Padua closed in 2007; and St. Augustine, Our Lady of Good Counsel and Ss. Peter and Paul in 2006. Another area church, St. Francis of Assisi, closed in 2000.
Gone are the days of having Catholic churches every few city blocks, complete with parish schools and clear ethnic bases. Only three west-side urban churches — Sacred Heart Cathedral to the north, Holy Apostles in the center, and St. Monica to the south — remain out of 11 churches from three pastoral-planning groups that, not long ago, operated within a few miles of each other.
Parishioners and ministerial staffs are now charged with maintaining a presence across the remaining parishes’ immediate neighborhoods and “all that vast land in between,” said Rose Davis, pastoral associate of the Cathedral Community.
Possible future developments include selling or renting churches and other buildings on church properties; utilizing space in recently closed Catholic schools; and establishing ministries at new locations within the former parishes’ neighborhoods.
“We have to rethink and reorganize in terms of our ministry and presence,” said Bernard Grizard, diocesan director of Parish Support Ministries.
According to Davis, a clear plan has not yet materialized for that next step.
“That conversation is still alive, but there’s been a lull as we’ve gone through the transitions,” she said. Since current residents of the city’s west side are predominantly non-Catholic, she said that neighborhood associations and churches of other denominations should be included in carving out that future.
“It will take a real conversation, with a lot of people having it,” Davis said.
Ethnic ties fade
During the 1960s and ’70s, Davis — whose maiden name is Culligan — and her 10 siblings attended Holy Rosary alongside other large families of mostly Irish and Italian descent. The church offered five or six weekend liturgies, and had at least three priests, a packed school, youth Masses and a popular annual festival.
But by the time Davis became Holy Rosary’s pastoral associate in the mid-1990s, she began seeing “more of the old guard and fewer young people,” plus greater lay involvement to compensate for fewer priests. The pastorate was eventually extended to cover Most Precious Blood and Sacred Heart Cathedral, forming The Cathedral Community of which only Sacred Heart now remains.
“People were leaving the neighborhood in droves,” added Davis’ sister, Carol Dady, who serves as diocesan coordinator for priestly vocations awareness. Those who left were replaced mostly by non-Catholics, and the ethnic distinctions of such churches as St. Anthony of Padua (Italian), Most Precious Blood (Italian) and Holy Family (German) became blurred.
Up to now, Catholic parishes on Rochester’s east side have faced comparatively less upheaval, thanks in part to such well-defined ethnic churches as St. George (Lithuanian), St. Stanislaus (Polish), and several largely Hispanic parish communities. But they, too, now are dealing with consolidation issues. St. Philip Neri Church closed in 2003, and Our Lady of the Americas Parish — comprising Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Francis Xavier churches — is currently finalizing a plan to cut back from three worship sites to one sometime this summer.
“The immigrant church, I think, mainly has come to an end,” Grizard said.
Smaller cities in the Rochester Diocese have been affected by the changing times as well. St. Anthony in Elmira, which was founded a century ago by immigrant Italian families, held its closing Mass on June 13. And Deb Housel, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison, noted that two ethnic Auburn churches — St. Francis of Assisi (Italian) and St. Hyacinth (Polish) — now have clustered with each other.
Doing things differently
Along with demographic changes, the priest shortage also has fueled clustering as well as the closing last month of another diocesan church, St. Thomas Aquinas in Leicester, Livingston County, which held its final Mass on June 22. In addition, Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County recently announced that when their priest availability drops from three to two — possibly within the next year — St. Francis in Catatonk and St. Pius X in Van Etten, two of the parishes’ six churches, also will close.
In Rochester, church closings have occurred at greater frequency due to the city’s many large edifices, which increasingly have been occupied by dwindling numbers of parishioners who struggle financially to support the aging structures.
Housel said church closings are expected to improve the financial outlook “to a point where money can be spent on ministries, not on old buildings.”
“A lot of what’s happened has not been driven by priests. It’s been driven by finances,” noted Karen Rinefierd, the diocese’s other pastoral-planning liaison.
Davis and Dady also acknowledged that crime and poverty have risen sharply in their native Holy Rosary neighborhood. With so many churches closing, they and Sister Entress are concerned about what the future holds for an already fragile inner city.
“A neighbor across the street said Holy Family has been the rock of peace in the neighborhood. That’s our biggest fear — when the church is no longer here, will people have the same respect?” Sister Entress said.
One way to maintain that respect is by continuing neighborhood ministries at churches that are no longer being used for worship. For example, Dady cited Melita House, which offers group housing for single mothers and their newborn children. The ministry is located in the former convent at Holy Rosary.
“You have to do things differently than you used to,” Dady said.
Rinefierd observed that similar challenges are facing dioceses and archdioceses all over the northeastern United States. In fact, a New York Times article from Feb. 10 noted that 30 of the Syracuse Diocese’s 154 churches closed or merged during the year 2007 alone. The Buffalo Diocese was to drop from 275 to 204 churches over a three-year period beginning in 2005, the Times story noted, while the Rochester Diocese had gone from 159 to 136 parishes since 2001.
As difficult as the local consolidations have been, Rinefierd said Rochester still has a more favorable pastoral-planning scenario because its system promotes input from parish communities and comparatively longer planning periods for consolidations than do those of other dioceses.
“(Bishop Matthew H. Clark) has intentionally wanted people to have clear information,” Rinefierd said.
Housel, meanwhile, said input from pastoral-planning groups in all 12 counties mark Rochester as “a diocese willing to participate.”
A resurrection people
Though willing to participate in the development of the Cathedral Community’s pastoral plan, Davis and Dady acknowledged that their transition from worshiping at Holy Rosary to Sacred Heart Cathedral was not easy.
“Deep down, I guess I wanted to think we were going to hang on at Holy Rosary, that we needed to keep a presence if we could at all. So for me, it was a hard pill to swallow,” Dady said. “I always thought that my daughters would be married in the same church that I was married in, that my mother was married in. They were looking forward to it, too.”
“It still is very difficult to drive down that street (Lexington Avenue) and (know) the door is locked. Carol and I have an understanding that it had to happen, but it still is painful,” Davis added.
Recalling Holy Rosary’s closing liturgy on March 9 — which also was the date of Most Precious Blood’s final Mass — Davis said, “It still doesn’t seem real. There were a lot of people and it made you feel like it didn’t have to happen, but you could see the aged faces. It was hard to know you were powerless.”
Meanwhile, Sister Entress said Holy Family Church had experienced somewhat of a renaissance in the last couple of years, thanks to a dedicated group of parishioners who brought to the church several cultural events that were well-attended by a mix of ethnic groups.
“We’re just a big melting pot — a very sad melting pot,” she said.
Debbie DiFilippo, Holy Family’s catechetical leader, acknowledged that “for a lot of people it’s hard to imagine what things are going to be like somewhere else,” but that “we’re a resurrection people … we recognize that out of death comes life.”
Dady, for one, is finding that it is indeed possible to rise up again now that some time has passed.
“I wouldn’t have pictured becoming connected with someplace else, but I feel like this is becoming home to me now,” she said of Sacred Heart Cathedral.
And no matter how Catholic churches are configured, Davis said she is committed to urban ministry in the same way that Jesus sought out those who had the greatest need.
“I just think this is a very important place,” she stated, also emphasizing that “I love the city, crime or no crime. I love the diversity, and yet there’s still a strong sense of community.”