In an unprecedented step for suburban Rochester, pastoral-planning groups in Irondequoit and Greece are calling for the closing of three churches.
Planners are recommending the closing of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Salome, both in Irondequoit, as well as Our Lady of Mercy in Greece. The recommendations — which were based on declining Mass attendance, financial struggles and the number of priests available for ministry — have not yet been presented to Bishop Matthew H. Clark, whose approval is necessary for the plans to move forward.
In Irondequoit, the closing of St. Thomas and St. Salome would leave Christ the King as the only remaining church out of what is currently a three-parish cluster. According to the plan to be submitted to the bishop, Christ the King then would merge with St. Cecilia and St. Margaret Mary, the other existing parishes in the Irondequoit Pastoral Planning Group. These three churches would become a single new parish with a new name and patron, as well as a single leadership team and staff, completing a planning-group consolidation of five parishes into one.
Irondequoit’s plan is due to be presented to Bishop Clark in September or October of this year, following meetings involving the planning group and individual parish councils to finalize recommendations. The proposed changes are slated to take effect in 2010, said Deborah Housel, diocesan pastoral-planning liaison for the Irondequoit planning group.
"Analysis showed that we can only afford to maintain three parish campuses with associated worship sites, faith formation classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and rectories," stated a July 10 letter to parishioners. The letter was signed by Father Norman Tanck, CSB, pastor of Christ the King/St. Thomas/St. Salome; Father William Leone, pastor of St. Cecilia; Father Timothy Horan, pastor of St. Margaret Mary; and Betsy Stehler, Irondequoit planning-group chair.
The planning group had originally sought to create a five-parish cluster in 2012 but "finances, declining attendance and clergy availability have required us to re-examine this plan," the July 10 letter said.
Housel blamed "today’s times, with the (poor) economy" for forcing an accelerated timetable with more drastic choices.
Regarding the recommendation to close two churches, Housel said all parishes in the planning group are "in agreement that it needs to happen," yet she acknowledged that considerable dispute has arisen over which churches should be closed.
In Greece, the recommended closing of Our Lady of Mercy was announced in Eastern Greece/Charlotte Pastoral Planning Group parishes the weekend of July 5. This decision was made at a June 30 meeting of the planning group’s steering committee, based on a financial-committee report dated May 26.
The planning group’s other five churches are Our Mother of Sorrows, St. Charles Borromeo, St. John the Evangelist and Holy Name of Jesus, all in Greece, and Holy Cross in Charlotte. The financial committee noted that attendance among the planning group’s churches has plummeted by 36 percent over the past decade, and that there are no signs that the trend will be reversed.
"We cannot continue to afford the staffing and building expenses for the same number of parishes when our overall attendance has decreased 36 percent," the report said, adding that "there are no positive projections related to the number of priests in the near future and we should not try to maintain any more parishes than necessary."
The financial-committee report also called for the closing of Holy Name of Jesus, but the steering committee has opted to incorporate a strategic plan that would keep Holy Name open subject to yearly review.
Eastern Greece/Charlotte expects to submit a final plan to Bishop Clark by the end of 2009, and projects that Our Lady of Mercy would close at some point in 2010. That parish just dedicated a brand-new church in 2002 after operating with a temporary on-campus facility for the parish’s first 45 years.
New building notwithstanding, Karen Rinefierd, planning liaison for Eastern Greece/Charlotte, said that Our Lady of Mercy "has no money. It’s a wonderful, warm community, but they truly have run out of money."
The diocesan pastoral-planning process was begun in 1997 in an effort to make the best use of existing resources, based on demographic and economic change as well as the declining number of priests. The process has led to several church closings in the City of Rochester and many other parts of the 12-county Rochester Diocese.
Yet the proposed closings in Irondequoit and Greece are a first for suburban Rochester. Rinefierd said reaching this juncture punches home the reality that all parishes are facing the same issues.
"It’s not an urban, rural or suburban problem," Rinefierd said. She added, however, that no other church closings are being proposed for Rochester’s suburbs at this time.