Don Schmitt was among the many proud parishioners when Greece’s Our Lady of Mercy Parish opened a new church in 2002. He couldn’t have imagined that the structure would be slated for closure just seven years later.
“I was looking at the church thinking, ‘Look at what we did here. I’m going to stay here forever.’ Well, welcome to forever,” Schmitt remarked.
Unforeseen developments at Our Lady of Mercy arose following a 2008 advisory from Bishop Matthew H. Clark that the Eastern Greece/Charlotte Planning Group should assess its six churches’ collective viability. A subsequent study revealed Mercy to be plagued by rising bills coupled with steeply declining attendance and donations.
“Things started not adding up,” Schmitt said, adding that this realization was “kind of the first lightbulb” that his parish’s future was in jeopardy. On July 5 of this year, the planning group’s steering committee — of which Schmitt is a member — announced its recommendation that Mercy be closed.
Closure also was recommended for Irondequoit’s St. Salome and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes in a July 10 announcement from officials of the Irondequoit Pastoral Planning Group. Attendance during a recent 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Salome shed significant light on why such action was deemed necessary: Slightly more than 100 people occupied the 550-seat church, and only a handful were children.
Sandy Doran, St. Salome’s archivist, noted that the church had been rebuilt from two fires during its 101-year history — “change is not new, we have survived,” she said — but acknowledged that the parish cannot survive so many empty pews on a regular basis.
Final plans for Eastern Greece/Charlotte and IPPG are expected to be presented to Bishop Clark over the next few months, as the bishop’s approval is necessary for the plans to be enacted. But if the current recommendations are approved, St. Salome, St. Thomas and Mercy would cease operations as early as next year, becoming the first suburban-Rochester parishes to close in diocesan history.
Amid mergers and outright church closings, the number of diocesan parishes has dropped since 2000 from 161 to 131, after holding steady around the 160 mark throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Statistics provided by diocesan officials also reveal that Sunday Mass attendance in diocesan parishes fell by approximately 25 percent from 2000 to 2008.
Diocesan pastoral-planning officials said no other closings are imminent for suburban churches, but that future downsizing is likely in all types of settings — rural, urban, suburban — due to such factors as the declining availability of priests; population shifts; depressed donation patterns arising from a poor economy; increased costs to maintain aging structures; and reduced adherence among Catholics to the Sunday Mass obligation.
Similar challenges are affecting Catholic dioceses across the United States and in other parts of the world (see related story on page A8.) With so many issues at hand, Schmitt isn’t sure when, or how, a turnaround would bring more people and financial stability to churches.
“If I had a magic answer for that, then we would solve all these problems,” he remarked.
Begun in the Rochester Diocese in 1997, pastoral planning is a process by which regional groups of pastoral leaders and parishioners collaborate in order to best share their resources. Although this system was instituted chiefly to address the declining availability of priests — a challenge that since has become more pronounced (see related story on page A4) — plummeting Mass attendance clearly has emerged as another key factor.
In Irondequoit, the IPPG has proposed the dissolution of its five parishes to form one parish with a new name, using only St. Cecilia, Christ the King and St. Margaret Mary as sites for worship. Studies conducted by the planning group show that overall Sunday Mass attendance in 2008 was less than 35 percent of capacity at its five member churches. Average attendance was 168 per Sunday Mass for St. Thomas — which the IPPG also estimates to need $800,000 in repairs — and 145 for St. Salome, compared to 288 for Christ the King, 252 for St. Margaret Mary and 251 for St. Cecilia.
In Eastern Greece/Charlotte, planning-group studies reveal that Sunday attendance among its six churches has dropped by 36 percent during the past decade. Our Lady of Mercy was the most severely affected, with an average attendance of 138 per Sunday Mass in 2008, while other averages were 186 for Holy Name of Jesus, 196 for Holy Cross, 281 for St. Charles Borromeo, 317 for St. John the Evangelist and 319 for Our Mother of Sorrows.
Relative to total church capacity utilization (seating capacity multiplied by the number of Sunday Masses), Mercy came in at 23 percent, whereas the other five Eastern Greece/Charlotte churches fell between 32 percent and 43 percent.
Yet Schmitt observed that when Mercy and Holy Name of Jesus were founded to address population spikes in Greece during the late 1950s and early 1960s, their buildings typically were packed.
“You could go to a Sunday Mass and it would be standing room only,” he said.
Indicating just how quickly the tables have turned, Schmitt added that the construction of Mercy’s 600-seat church made sense as recently as 2002 based on parish demographics at that time.
Declining attendance has, in turn, depressed finances at diocesan parishes. For instance, Deborah Housel noted that the five IPPG churches have experienced a 38-percent drop in attendance in eight years.
“You’re asking (the remaining) 62 percent of the people to pay for 100 percent (of the expenses),” said Housel, who along with Karen Rinefierd serves as a diocesan liaison to assist planning groups with their work.
Rinefierd added that more planning groups are coming to recognize the need to closely track Mass attendance and finances before their churches’ survival becomes threatened.
One such parish is Holy Name of Jesus, which the Eastern Greece/Charlotte financial committee had originally recommended for closure along with Our Lady of Mercy. But Ken Whitney, who represents Holy Name on the planning group’s steering committee, said his parish was able to prove that it has reduced its debt from $180,000 to $31,000 over the past two years and become more vibrant as a community. Thus, the steering committee has opted for a strategic plan that will keep Holy Name open subject to yearly financial review.
Whitney acknowledged that if a plan to close Holy Name had come up three years ago, “I would have had no choice but to agree.”
“We all feel that we are being given another chance, and we intend to prove to everyone that we deserved to remain open. There is a new fire and excitement,” he said.
Dorothy Hayes, a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle, said she feels her church should be given a similar opportunity to remain open, although she acknowledged that attendance has dropped way off since St. Thomas was clustered in 2007 with St. Salome and Christ the King.
“It was definitely a major turning point for us,” she said of the clustering move, noting that many parishioners left because they were upset about losing a resident pastor and about other aspects of the planning process. Even so, Hayes said she was shocked at the July announcement that St. Thomas had been recommended for closure.
Hayes is among a group of vocal St. Thomas parishioners who are beseeching the IPPG to reverse its decision, saying that “we don’t feel other opportunities have been exhausted.” Among their other arguments are a dispute over the estimated $800,000 cost for needed repairs at St. Thomas and the fact that Msgr. Richard K. Burns, longtime pastor, is buried on church property.
“People are hurt and angry,” Hayes added. “We feel this is a righteous battle. We would be remiss not to stand up and defend our beloved church.”
A reconfiguration plan cannot be presented to Bishop Clark until all parish pastoral councils within the IPPG agree on it, and the council at St. Thomas has not yet done so. Betsy Stehler, a Christ the King parishioner who serves as IPPG chair, said she is hopeful but not certain that the plan can be finalized by early December.
On the other hand, Doran said she feels that the IPPG has “thoroughly covered all the aspects and realities” as they relate to St. Salome, which is currently developing a proposal by which its church building could be used by area Catholics for purposes other than Sunday worship.
Similarly in Greece, Schmitt said two town meetings were held at Our Lady of Mercy regarding its recommended closure, but that parishioners “drew a blank” on how to improve their situation.
Doran also noted that there are positives to consolidating, such as a variety of priests and programs that would not have otherwise been available.
“New people is not a bad thing,” she observed.
However, “even if we can understand the reasons (for closing), it’s hard for the heart to consider,” she added.
Whitney said planning groups are doing their best under these challenging circumstances to bring the Catholic faith forward in the best way possible.
“I think we all realize that this is a national problem, not just isolated to New York, Rochester or Greece,” he said. “There are no magical fixes to any of the Catholic Church’s problems, but we can start with baby steps and attack the problems in our own back yard.”