HENRIETTA — The closing of a Catholic church in suburban Rochester is a rare but — over the last decade — not unprecedented event.
At least one church has closed in most of the Rochester Diocese’s 12 counties since the late 1990s, when a pastoral-planning process was implemented in order to consolidate diminishing human, financial and other resources. The greatest concentration of closures has occurred in the City of Rochester, although no similar action took place in the suburbs until 2010. Since then, three churches have ceased operation: Our Lady of Mercy (2010) and Holy Name of Jesus (2014), both in Greece; and St. Salome in Irondequoit (2010).
One more church will soon be added to that list. On July 3, the campus of Henrietta’s Church of the Good Shepherd was sold to the Rush-Henrietta Central School District. According to Mercy Sister Sheila Stevenson, pastoral administrator, St. Marianne Cope Parish — of which Good Shepherd is a part — plans to shift Good Shepherd’s operations to Henrietta’s Guardian Angels Church, located three miles to the north, no later than Nov. 30, 2019.
Good Shepherd’s property, located on East Henrietta Road just south of Lehigh Station Road, comprises the original church built in 1911; the former school, including a basement chapel where Sunday Masses have taken place since 1964; a parish office building; and a house adjacent to the office. Sister Stevenson explained that proceeds from the sale of Good Shepherd — which brought in $1.3 million for the parish — are earmarked for future upgrades at Guardian Angels.
These developments are part of an ongoing consolidation process for St. Marianne Cope Parish, which comprises Good Shepherd, Guardian Angels and St. Joseph Church in Rush. The three churches were clustered in 2010 and became a single parish in 2012. Sister Stevenson said the long-range plan is for Guardian Angels to become the parish’s sole worship site, although St. Joseph is not for sale at this time.
Consolidation, at varying levels, is becoming more commonplace in other parts of Monroe County as well. Recent examples are Parish of the Holy Family in Gates, which in 2016 combined the clergy, staff and finances of Holy Ghost, St. Helen and St. Jude churches; and St. Martin de Porres Parish, which in 2017 combined St. Mary of the Assumption, Scottsville, and St. Vincent de Paul, Churchville, both in Monroe County; and St. Columba/St. Patrick, Caledonia, in Livingston County.
Meanwhile, in Brighton, Penfield and Fairport, each town has at least one pastor responsible for two churches even though the worship sites remain separate entities.
Two decades after the pastoral-planning process began, these communities continue to struggle with the very same challenges that got the process going: reduced Mass attendance, financial struggles and a declining number of priests available for ministry. St. Marianne Cope Parish, for instance, currently has approximately 2,100 families — 300 fewer than when the churches were combined nine years ago.
“Mass attendance declines, and therefore financials decline. It’s unreasonable to think that we could maintain three properties with nine buildings for very much longer,” Sister Stevenson said. One priest, Father Malachy “Eloo” Nwosu, currently serves the parish’s three churches.
Sister Stevenson said the consolidation plan was agreed upon by staff and parishioners as a result of discussions begun more than two years ago, when Barbara Swiecki — who died in June 2018 — was still the pastoral administrator. Kathy Steiner, administrative assistant for St. Marianne Cope, said adjusting to the reality of consolidation has been a gradual process for parishioners.
“There was a period where we were not working together very well. When it was first started, there were a lot of emotions,” she said. “We’ve come a long way from initial meetings where people were walking out. Now, those same people are rallying together.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how far we’ve come,” Sister Stevenson agreed. “In the town hall meetings as of late, people are saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ They’re realistic.”