Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Port Richmond.

Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Port Richmond.

Five parishes in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section will reorganize in a plan that calls for merging and partnering, a new model whereby most of the parishes’ identities will remain.

Parishioners in the area learned of the news at Masses over the weekend, Jan. 23-24, presumably after digging out from 18 inches of snow in the city.

Of the six parishes in Pastoral Planning Area (PPA) 570 in Port Richmond, five are affected by the initiative announced this week. They will be reorganized in two phases.

The first calls for Our Lady Help of Christians Parish, founded in 1885 for German Catholics in the area, to merge with Nativity B.V.M. Parish, and for Mother of Divine Grace Parish to partner with St. George Parish. The phase is to be completed by June of this year.

Phase two of the initiative will be completed by June 2017 in which the new Nativity Parish partners with Mother of Divine Grace and St. George.

An archdiocesan statement described a parish partnership as one in which the parish churches remain open and each parish retains its own finances and finance council. But to better manage resources, one priest pastor, one pastoral council and one parish staff serve the needs of all the parishes in the partnership.

For instance in PPA 570, by June 2017 one pastor, one staff and one pastoral council will serve Nativity, Mother of Divine Grace and St. George parishes. All will remain open.

According to the archdiocesan statement, the partnership model helps parishes to “realize efficiencies in operation, to pool resources for more effective evangelization and to address the issue of decreasing priest personnel throughout the archdiocese.”

St. Adalbert Parish, which had joined in the planning process with the other parishes in Port Richmond, will remain a free-standing parish with its own pastor, staff, councils and finances.

St. Anne Parish was not involved with PPA 570’s planning and remains unaffected.

The process of strengthening parish life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began more than five years ago, in the fall of 2010. Pastors, parishioners and an Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee have discussed recommendations for achieving parish growth and sustainability for the Catholic community in a given area.

The planning process has resulted in 48 fewer parishes in the archdiocese today, as dozens of parishes have merged especially in densely populated urban areas.

Port Richmond typifies some of the most difficult challenges pastors and parishioners engaged in the process face when trying to decide how to manage large physical plants and dwindling resources in the decades since the parishes’ founding.

One of the most critical needs is staffing parishes with a declining number of available priests today and in the future.

Geographically Port Richmond covers the river wards in lower Northeast Philadelphia along I-95 and the Delaware River, at one time home to bustling factories and burgeoning Catholic neighborhoods. While the Catholic population is smaller than in decades past, the parishes, churches and schools those communities built remain.

Three of those churches — Our Lady Help of Christians, Nativity and St. Adalbert — sit within seven blocks of one another on Allegheny Avenue. All three grand churches might each be considered a cathedral in any other diocese.

A distance of only 1.2 miles separates Mother of Divine Grace Church in the south of the area from St. George Church in the north, with four others in between.

In years past each parish ran its own Catholic school. Today St. George and Mother of Divine Grace each have a school, and Our Lady of Port Richmond is a regional school at the St. Adalbert campus.

Port Richmond also hosts ethnic enclaves, or at least used to: Polish Catholics still support St. Adalbert, but Our Lady Help of Christians no longer celebrates a Mass in German among its two weekend Masses for 278 people, according to the latest weekend Mass count.

The many factors such as large, underutilized churches and other buildings, shrinking congregations and diminishing financial resources were studied by the Port Richmond parishes beginning in October 2014.

After a year of discussion parish leaders and parishioners failed to come to an agreement on a path forward, so last October they met again to consider the partnership option. They eventually settled on it and recommended it the Council of Priests and to Archbishop Charles Chaput, who accepted the plan.