By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Statistics and population trends are important in parish planning. Consider this: St. Brendan Parish was founded in the Germantown section of the city in 1925 and suppressed just nine years later. St. Hubert, a German national parish, was founded in the Tacony section of the city in 1924 but suppressed in 1940, and the church turned into a still-flourishing high school for girls for which there was a greater need.

Yes, both were partially victims of the Great Depression coming on the heels of their foundation, but most of the 52 other archdiocesan parishes organized in the 1920s, perhaps better placed, survived the economic storm and are still with us. One wonders, had the Archdiocese had an Office for Research and Planning back in the 1920s if either of the two parishes would have been established in the first place. {{more}}

We Americans tend to move around a lot and Catholics are no exception. Not many of us are buried from the parish where we were baptized.

In the case of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the big movement for Catholics has been from the city to the suburbs. Since 1972, according to data gleaned from the archdiocesan Catholic Directory, 46 city parishes have closed, replaced by seven consolidated or new parishes.

Nothing underscored this Catholic flight to the suburbs like the 2008 closing of West Philadelphia’s Most Blessed Sacrament, a former mega-parish which once had the largest parochial school in the nation.

The suburbs are not totally immune to these population shifts either. Since 1972, 12 suburban parishes have closed but an equal number of new parishes have sprung up. The greatest suburban loss was in the City of Chester, which went from seven parishes to one parish and one chapel. However, the greatest change has been overall suburban parish growth.

As a matter of fact, according to the 2009 October Count, the Archdiocese’s 10 largest parishes in terms of registration are now located in the suburbs. They include St. Andrew, Newtown; Our Lady of Grace, Penndel; Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Doylestown; St. Bede, Holland; Mision Santa Maria, Avondale; St. Joseph, Warrington; Visitation B.V.M., Trooper; Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, North Wales; St. Eleanor, Collegeville; and SS. Simon and Jude, West Chester.

In net registration, according to Research and Planning statistics, city parishes lost 191,536 Catholics between 1990 and 2009, while suburban parishes gained 132,138 over the same period. But of course registration figures are only part of the story because many Catholics do not register with a parish.

The more accurate figure, which is used in the Philadelphia Catholic Directory, is based on self-reporting through various surveys. The 2010 directory shows as of 2008 there was a Catholic population of 1,464,938 in the Archdiocese. By contrast, only 1,172,178 were registered to a parish that year.

While their location may have changed, the overall number of Catholics in the Archdiocese is relatively constant, but showing a modest increase over the past two decades. In 1990 the estimate was 1,402,753. This is partly due to Catholic immigration, but also more reported baptisms than reported deaths.

Although there has been a decline in infant baptisms, there has been an increase in baptisms of young children and teens, and beginning this year the Office for Research and Planning has factored in these later baptisms to show a ratio of 1.33 for every funeral reported.

“I believe the new ratio employing all the baptisms represents a more accurate picture of how the Catholic population is replacing itself through baptism,” said Dr. Robert J. Miller, director of the Research and Planning Office.

As might be expected from the other data this baptism/funeral ratio varies from vicariate to vicariate, with a low ratio of 1.08 in Philadelphia-South and a high of 2.75 in Chester County.

Less encouraging is the overall Mass attendance figure, which according to the statistics has dropped from 390,500 in 1994 to 283,245 in 2009.

Another challenge is the ratio of priests to parishioners, given the present shortage of religious vocations. Across the Archdiocese it was 1,975 Catholics to one priest in 1990; in 2009 it rose to 3,465 to one priest, which according to diocesan histories, is an all-time low and almost certain to worsen, given current ordination rates.

Although the number of priests have declined, the 2010 archdiocesan Catholic Directory shows Masses are now celebrated in more than 20 different languages, including Latin and American Sign Language. This includes 38 churches where a Spanish Mass is offered and seven where Mass is celebrated in Vietnamese. But of course this list changes annually as younger generations become primarily English speakers.

Past generations saw many Masses in German, Italian and Polish, which have decreased to the point where not a single German Mass is now listed. The Church responds to the needs of the times.

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