Analyzing the city/suburb demographics

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Did you know, in our culturally spanerse Archdiocese that the four suburban counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery have well over twice as many registered Catholics as does Philadelphia itself?

In the 17 years (1990-2007) that the archdiocesan Office for Research and Planning has been keeping records, Philadelphia has lost 171,901 registered Catholics and the suburban counties have gained 135,681, for a combined total of 1,197,966.

For many years the majority of Catholics lived in the city, but it hasn’t been so for decades, and the truth is, it wasn’t that way in the beginning either. The oldest parish listed for the Archdiocese is St. Thomas the Apostle, Chester Heights (Delaware County), founded in 1729.

Registered Catholics, of course, are only part of the total because many people, for whatever reason, do not register with a parish. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia Catholic Directory estimates the total number of Catholics in the Archdiocese at 1,458,430, and that is really a conservative figure, said Robert Miller, director at the research office.

Also, the almost 172,000 Catholics lost in Philadelphia since 1990 doesn’t mean they all got up and moved during those 17 years. The migration began years earlier, Miller noted, and because those who moved tended to be younger they had children. Those who remained in the city tended to be older, often past child-bearing, and “aged in place,” with many eventually dying.

This change has affected parishes. The last city parishes founded from scratch were St. Irenaeus and St. Martha in 1966. Since then, St. Irenaeus was one of 40 city parishes which closed, and six new combined parishes opened for their former parishioners for a net loss of 34 parishes.

In the suburbs only 10 parishes closed; including seven in Chester (Delaware County) replaced by one. Also since 1966, 16 other suburban parishes have been created.

Movement from a core city to the suburbs is a natural progression over a long period and takes place in waves of concentric circles. For example, the communities in Delaware County that were closest to the city were developed early. They matured and some people moved out – hence Delaware County to a lesser degree than Philadelphia has also lost population. “Catholics trailed along, each generation followed the crowd,” Miller said.

Families in the next generation moved further out. Families who settled in Abington, say, in the 1960s might have seen their children move out to North Wales, for example.

The most dramatic archdiocesan example of Catholic movement from a suburban area is the City of Chester. On the other hand, Chester County, which was mostly farmland not so long ago has had a huge explosion of population as people, including Catholics, moved into the newly built houses of the region.

Although these natural population changes mean fewer Catholics in some areas, overall, “the Church is growing, and it is growing largely because of the immigrant population,” Miller said.

That is really the biggest story. Immigrant families tend to have more children than native-born families, but also, in this generation, fewer immigrants settle in the city.

“About 70 percent of new immigrants are settling in the suburbs,” Miller said, pointing to the Mexican population at Our Lady of Fatima, Bensalem, and the Vietnamese at St. Maria Goretti, Hatfield, as two examples. Counting both city and suburbs, Mass is offered in an astonishing 21 foreign languages throughout the Archdiocese, according to the annual Catholic Directory.

What does the future hold? There really isn’t a crystal ball to tell us, just educated guesses. The Pew Research Center has done projections of demographic changes for the United States as a whole, up to the year 2050. If those projections were applied proportionately, specifically to the five counties of the Archdiocese, Miller notes the Hispanic population (which at this time is estimated to be 72.6 percent Catholic) would nearly triple in size to about a half million. The Black population would nearly double to about 1.3 million; the Asian population would triple to almost a half million; and while the white non-Hispanic population would grow by about a million, it would no longer comprise a majority of the people residing in the Archdiocese.

All of this is a very big if, Miller emphasizes, and of course he’s right. There is no way to say with certainty that birth rates and immigration rates will match current projected trends, or how closely ethnic distribution in the Philadelphia area will follow the national pattern. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.