MANITOWOC, Wis. (CNS) –- More than a decade ago, some of the Catholics in Manitowoc decided to help decide how their town would be affected by the anticipated end of having enough priests to staff their six parishes.

The result: All six parishes closed and a new city-wide parish replaced them with multiple worship sites.

Over the past few years, Catholic News Service reporters visited communities across the country in a project to learn about some of the parish structures that have evolved in the United States.

As Pope Francis visits the U.S. in September, the CNS parish studies became a way of looking at what it might take to give the pope a sense of some of the many different models that make up the “American Parish.”

Of the 17,340 U.S. parishes, 3,500 lack a resident priest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. CARA notes that before the 1950s, it was rare to have more than one priest per parish in the U.S. After the number of priests-per-parish shot up to 1.79 in the 1960s, there’s been a steady decline, to the current number of .93, less than one per parish.

In two places CNS visited, Manitowoc and South Pasadena, California, the collaboration between the lay parish members, their pastors and dioceses resulted in models of parish management that few people would have imagined a few decades ago.

In 2003, Catholics in Manitowoc looked at the trends in the Green Bay Diocese and recognized that in another cycle or two of pastoral assignments, there would no longer be priests staffing some of the six churches in their town of 33,000, where an estimated two-thirds of the population is Catholic.

What they didn’t want to happen was the kind of top-down decision to close parishes that they’d seen have bitter consequences in other places. Instead, working in conjunction with diocesan staff, a plan emerged to bring all six communities together as one.

At midnight July 1, 2005, church bells rang, marking the formal suppression of the six parishes and the opening of a new, citywide St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Three hundred people processed that night from the former St. Boniface, St. Peter’s, Sacred Heart, St. Paul and St. Andrew to converge at St. Mary, Manitowoc’s “mother church.” Each strand of the procession included someone carrying the Eucharist, to be merged into one bowl, dramatically illustrating the shared sacramental roots of their new parish.

From that day forward, three of the sanctuary buildings were closed for regular use. Two of the properties were soon sold and the third, the former St. Mary’s, is used occasionally for parish-wide events. The other three became known by their street addresses: Each is St. Francis of Assisi, but specifically are identified as the Waldo, Marshall or Grand worship sites. Each site has one Saturday evening Mass, and at least one Sunday morning Mass. Daily Mass at 6:45 a.m. rotates monthly among the sites. Parish offices are housed in a centrally located former medical complex.

There are currently three priests assigned to St. Francis, each living in one of the rectories at the worship sites. To foster the idea that all the locations are part of the same parish, the priests rotate where they celebrate Mass monthly, ensuring that if parishioners want to stick with one location or follow one priest, they’re going to be exposed to variety one way or another. Meanwhile, some of the smallest details reinforce the unity of the three sites: identical bulletin boards and trash cans in the foyers at each site, for instance.

Longtime parishioners can’t help referring to the sites as St. Paul’s or Sacred Heart, but the concept of being one parish is generally well supported.

“It’s still Holy Innocents to us,” said a trio of longtime parishioners as they left Saturday evening Mass at what is now known as the Waldo site. They recognize that the transition to their church becoming St. Francis was less difficult for them than it was for people whose familiar sanctuaries closed altogether.

“It was hard for a lot of people,” said Barb Trainor, who was a member of St. Paul, one of the churches that closed. “You were kind of used to your old parish, but once some time passed, it got more comfortable.”

Still, she added, some people get attached to one priest or another, and follow him from one worship site to another as they rotate each month.

Deacon Bob Beehner said that as the idea of a community-driven reorganization began to take shape, 10 committees, constituted of people from each parish, worked for a year on planning. Some of the necessary transitions were painful — there was no need for six parish secretaries, six religious education directors or five web sites. A couple of parishes were close to bankruptcy so a cumulative budget deficit of more than $500,000 had to be addressed.

Father Dan Felton, the longtime pastor who shepherded the creation of St. Francis, has since moved on to other assignments and currently is vicar general of the Green Bay Diocese. Father Dave Pleier is the current pastor.

Father Felton told CNS that as the committees worked, they considered whether to reduce the number of parishes from six to two or three, “but what would happen further down the road?” They feared another future parish closing would be even more traumatic.

He said the goal with all changes was to be as thoughtful as possible. Even when two of the church properties were sold, Father Felton said some of the natural reticence in town was tempered because one was sold to a Baptist church and the other, Sacred Heart, which had a strong social service component, was sold to a social services agency.

It also helped to emphasize what being one larger parish could make possible what was inconceivable in smaller parishes.

Through it all, he said, he and other members of the staff were conscious of listening to people’s struggles, even if there was little to be done about them.

“We’ll listen to anybody, but we can’t react to everybody,” became the philosophy, he said. “The first three years we held town hall meetings every month.”

Over time, people learned the best way to function in the new structures, who to go to among the staff instead of defaulting to “Father,” he said. As he prepared to leave Manitowoc seven years into the St. Francis experience, he felt strongly that the continued success of the parish would rely on the community and the systems they had established.

St. Francis is still organized around the idea of teams for various functions, each including one or more staff members — pastoral leadership, faith formation, school administration, administrative support, music, worship and development.

On Sundays, Mass in each location has some elements in common — a song or two, announcements — but other things, including preaching, are individualized. The six choirs that rotate among the Mass times and sites choose some of their own selections.