Archbishop Charles J. Chaput accepted the recommendations for the mergers from the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee, and pastors at the affected parishes informed parishioners during all Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses June 1-2.
The mergers, in which the parishes will form new, consolidated parishes with some of the churches becoming worship sites, are occurring in four geographic areas: Lower Northeast Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, West Philadelphia and Delaware County.
The affected parishes and their locations, along with links to parish information featuring 10 years of vital parish statistics, include:
Although not a part of the group of parishes under formal study since last fall, Incarnation of Our Lord Parish in Olney will merge with St. Helena and St. Veronica parishes, it was also announced on Sunday. Incarnation Church will become a worship site of St. Helena.
In a week’s time, a total of 29 parishes in the Archdiocese have been affected by consolidations.
All the mergers take effect July 1. In the meantime, the pastors of the merging parishes will form transitional teams of lay leaders to help build the new parish community.
Churches designated as worship sites may be used for weddings, funerals, feast days, ethnic celebrations and devotions, and Sunday Mass, at the discretion of the pastor and newly formed parish pastoral council, whose members are elected by parishioners.
“Restructuring our parishes will be a challenge for many families and individuals,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in April 2012 when the first of the parish merges in the initiative were announced. “Change is rarely easy. But we do need to take these steps to help every parish more effectively promote the Gospel and strengthen the future of our Catholic life together.”
One pastor who will lead the transition at his parish, Holy Innocents, as it merges with the three others in its area is Father Thomas M. Higgins. Serving the parish for nine years and having lived in parishes that merged, he knows well the feelings parishioners are experiencing.
“As painful as it is,” he said, “it needs to be done. We’re doing something today that should have been done 20 years ago. We don’t have a choice.”
He understands that even considering parishes as merging, Catholics will in effect see the closure or limited use of the church in which they received sacraments over the years. And he takes comfort from the words of a friend who also experienced the closure of her parish in the past: “A church is not a where, it’s a people who.”
“Although buildings will close, people will continue to be present and allow the Church to be alive,” Father Higgins said. “We’re embracing the cross, embracing a death, but somehow God is going to allow new life to flourish. We need to bring the resurrection into this painful moment.”
How the parish planning process works
All the parish decisions result from consultations among leaders in the parish pastoral and finance councils, pastors, deans of the respective areas, auxiliary bishops with responsibility for each area, the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee, the Council of Priests and finally, Archbishop Chaput.
The planning process reviewed parish information such as registered parishioners, annual baptisms, weddings and funerals and number of attendees at weekend Masses, condition of a parish’s buildings and its finances as indicators of a parish’s vitality, along with projections of a rise or fall in the indicators in the future as well as projections of future priest resources.
The process of examining parishes is rooted in a planning initiative for all parishes in the Archdiocese that began in 2011. The goal of the initiative, according to an archdiocesan statement, is for “revitalized parishes … that are better equipped to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of future generations.”
It also called the restructuring process “ongoing,” recognizing the fact parishes have been founded, closed or merged often in the more than 200-year history of the Archdiocese to reflect current realities, and will likely continue to do so.
Several areas have undergone significant shrinkage of Catholic population and, not surprisingly, a reduction in the number of parishes.
From many parishes, the rise of the mega-parish
West Philadelphia is one example. Since 2000, when Transfiguration of Our Lord merged with the newly named St. Cyprian (former St. Carthage), the 15 parishes that once served the area has now been reduced to five.
St. Cyprian illustrates the evolution into what may be called a Catholic mega-parish. Besides assuming the parish area of the former Transfiguration and St. Carthage parishes, with the new merger announcement it now also assumes the parish area of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. That parish itself was founded in 2005, resulting from the merger of Our Lady of Victory and Our Lady of the Rosary parishes.
Our Lady of Lourdes, on West Philadelphia’s border with Montgomery County, also now serves the areas once covered by three other closed parishes: St. Callistus (closed in January of this year), St. Donato (February) and Our Lady of Angels, which had previously merged with St. Donato in 2006.
A similar situation – both more complex and more striking – exists in North Philadelphia. During the last 20 years in the roughly defined region, where 24 parishes once served Catholic and non-Catholic Philadelphians, only eight parishes now will, after July 1.
As in West Philadelphia, mega-parishes have arisen. They include St. Martin de Porres at 24th Street and Lehigh Avenue, Visitation B.V.M. at B Street and Lehigh Avenue in Kensington, and now Holy Innocents at L Street and Hunting Park Avenue.
The latter is the most recent parish to grow dramatically in the area it serves. Holy Innocents assumed the area of Ascension of Our Lord Parish when it closed in October 2012. As it now welcomes into the new parish at Holy Innocents Church the former parishioners from St. Joan of Arc, St. Joachim and Mater Dolorosa, it also inherits challenges.
Holy Innocents already celebrates one Mass on Sunday in Spanish to serve the people who speak the language. Significant Latino populations live in the area – St. Joan and Mater Dolorosa offer Spanish Masses – and many Vietnamese also call Holy Innocents home. Many African Americans also live in the area, who now will also be served by the new parish.
The rich mingling of diverse cultures in the parish will likely continue but Holy Innocents’ pastor, Father Higgins, will get help from his newly ordained parochial vicar and former Spanish teacher, Father Thomas Viviano, from native Vietnamese Father Tung The Pham and Spanish-speaking Deacon Jorge L. Vera.
“We’re going to have to hire extra people to do the work, such as a full-time business manager and a facilities manager,” Father Higgins said.
Parishioners from the merging communities, many of who are elderly and rely on walking to church, will see limited transportation help. A parishioner has offered to pay for bus transportation for one Mass a week at least for the time being, Father Higgins said.
Recognizing the large Latino presence at St. Joan of Arc Parish, Father Higgins plans to continue a weekly Spanish Mass at the worship site, in addition to the weekly Spanish Mass at Holy Innocents Parish Church.
He vowed to continue serving well the Latino community at St. Joan’s, saying “Sister Linda Lukiewski (S.S.J.) has done a great job building up that community.”
Whether Spanish or English speaking, Catholics affected by the mergers may find they have a longer commute to church for Mass. In an area such as Bridesburg or Northern Liberties, the distance from one church to another is less than a mile.
But for parishioners of St. Leo, for instance, the journey to Our Lady of Consolation Church is xx miles – not a walkable distance for some parishioners used to traveling to church on foot.
A question of which parish to join?
As in all cases of the mergers, parishioners are invited to attend and join the new parish with its redefined geographic area and help build the new community. Canon law calls for parishes to have defined boundaries to serve the people within those limits but in actuality Catholics may attend Mass at any church they wish.
“Just because someone is in a parish boundary geographically, that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden to go worship in another church,” said Msgr. Arthur E. Rodgers, coordinator of archdiocesan planning initiatives. “They can let the pastors know that they are going over there, and let the other pastor know they are coming here.”
He said whether to insist that people remain in their parish boundary is still a topic of internal discussion among archdiocesan administrators, some of whom “are saying we’re undermining the whole concept of parish by doing something like letting people go wherever they wish. But in fact they are doing that,” Msgr. Rodgers said.
That many of the mergers involved parishes in close proximity highlighted one of the central issues to the planning process. The parishes were founded when neighborhoods were very dense with Catholics and/or served the individual ethnic populations in the area.
The planning process hoped to resolve the question of how best to serve a fewer number of people in a given area in the most efficient way. Fundamental questions planners asked were, “What do (Catholics) need there? Are there enough people there – Italians, Poles, Slovaks – who really need that type of parish?” Msgr. Rodgers said.
Even when a personal parish merges with a territorial parish, such as St. Laurentius (Polish) the territorial Holy Name, or the territorial St. Leo merging with Our Lady of Consolation (Italian), the end goal is to answer the question, according to Msgr. Rodgers, “Wouldn’t it be better to have one strong parish in an area rather than three weaker ones?”
Tensions and sadness exist amid newness
Of all the mergers, Northwest Philadelphia has proved to be the most contentious. “That was the most difficult area to work with (because) everybody had their own idea” for proposed mergers, Msgr. Rodgers said. “They all wanted to remain separate.”
He added last year’s merging of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis and Immaculate Conception parishes in Germantown was difficult too, but went well under the leadership of the Vincentian Fathers.
“It was done smoothly and is working smoothly now,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “Certainly there are problems and there are financial burdens and all the rest, but they’re moving ahead in a positive fashion.”
All the merging parishes in the Archdiocese will have to deal with varying debts or assets of the parishes that will close, including the church buildings. Some buildings may be in such a state of disrepair that even the newly consolidated parish, with its potentially greater resources, cannot feasibly keep the buildings up to code and may have to sell them.
Besides these challenges are the ones not measured on a balance sheet. Parishes are made up of people, and many people naturally feel hurt and even angry that their parish will close.
“You will have a lot of tension and sadness,” Msgr. Rodgers acknowledged. “In a sense this is like founding new parishes. It doesn’t have the positive aspect that you have when you’re founding a parish in the suburbs. But if (people) could see it as founding a parish it would be a whole different approach. But people don’t see it that way.”
He himself years ago lived through the very process he now leads. As a teenager, he grew up in Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Northeast Philadelphia. In 1954 his family was asked to join Our Lady of Ransom when it was founded, and they did so, even if reluctantly.
Although the parishes of the Archdiocese were reorganized into Parish Planning Areas in 2011 as part of the planning initiative, the process itself has not intended merely to reduce the number of parishes in a given area. Rather, Msgr. Rodgers said, individual parishes are studied first for their own viability.
In April of this year the Holy See at the Vatican recommended all dioceses use the same approach that the Philadelphia Archdiocese has been using.
And the process continues, even if it does not at this time end in consolidation or closure of a parish.
15 parishes under study but unaffected
Incarnation Parish was not part of the study process, yet it merged with two other parishes as a matter of necessity. Meanwhile, other parishes that were under study remain unaffected at this time because it is believed they can remain viable for the foreseeable future.
Those parishes in the city include: St. Raymond of Penafort in Northwest Philadelphia; St. Matthew, St. Timothy, St. Bartholomew and St. Bernard in Northeast Philadelphia; St. Agnes-St. John Nepomucene, St. Michael and St. Peter the Apostle in Fishtown/Northern Liberties; and St. Augustine, Old St. Joseph’s and Old St. Mary’s in Center City.
In Delaware County, parishes still under study but unaffected include Our Lady of Charity in Brookhaven, St. Francis de Sales in Lenni and St. Joseph in Aston.
One parish also under study but virtually ruled out for closure appears to be St. Katharine Drexel in Chester. Itself founded in 1993 from the closure and merging of six parishes into one, it remains a parish with few resources serving a large area.
“We looked at St. Katharine Drexel but we can’t close that because it’s the only church in the whole city,” Msgr. Rodgers said. “That got people angry, (asking) ‘Why were they protected?’ Because you have to have a church in Chester,” he said.
Recourse for parishioners who dispute any of the merger decisions exists through the Holy See.
In all, 56 parishes in the Archdiocese have been affected either by merging with a neighboring parish or receiving a closed parish’s members since 2011.
They include consolidations of four parishes into two in Phoenixville and the same numbers in Coatesville, both in Chester County; three parishes merging into one in Philadelphia’s Manayunk section, plus consolidations in North Philadelphia, Germantown, Kensington and Northern Liberties, and two announcements in January and February of this year for West Philadelphia.
Eventually, every parish will be studied with the goal of strengthening parish communities and “positioning them for future growth and sustainability,” according to the Archdiocese.