2009 SOPC News

French Laity Head Parishes

The priest shortage in France is among the most severe in Europe. In 2001 the diocese of Nice had to reduce its 265 parishes down to 47. In another northern diocese one priest serves 27 parishes, dropping by only rarely to celebrate Eucharist and consecrate hosts for communion services when he leaves.

The rest of the time, lay people run their own churches. The newly created parish of Notre Dame d l’Esperance has just one priest, yet all five village churches are flourishing.  Each has an appointed lay leader who celebrates communion services, presides at funerals, conducts parish visitation, counsels parishioners, gives pre-marriage instruction, brings communion to the sick, and provides chaplaincy services to hospitals, retirement homes and youth groups. Other lay leaders accompany catechumens through a two-year program and see to the financial oversight of the parish church.

Many in France believe that soon there won't be any priests at all which means that people will ultimately be left without the Mass and sacraments, the center of Catholic faith. Lay leaders are wondering when the Vatican will wake up and recognize these new ministries.

Vatican II talked about us all being priests,” said lay leader Mary-Ann Hosley.  “The priesthood of the laity. So maybe the church will soon have a new form of priest.”

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland has advertised for full time lay pastoral workers for the first time.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin insisted that lay Catholics must play a greater role in the life of the Church, “assuming roles of personal renewal, of leadership and of service in different ways, reflecting the diversity of ministries.”

(Excerpted from former Dominican David Rice’s July 8 article in The Irish Times and The Tablet 7/12/08).

Camden Council of Parishes Plans Appeals

Parishioners from St. Vincent Pallotti parish in the diocese of Camden have received a letter from the Congregation for the Clergy indicating that they may continue their appeal challenging the Diocese of Camden's to merge their vibrant 900 family parish with another smaller parish. The group is a member of the Council of Parishes organized after Bishop Joseph Galante announced a plan in April 2008 to close half of Camden's 124 parishes. The number of active diocesan priests in the area is expected to fall from 165 to 85 or fewer by 2015. Spokesman Robert Walsh of the Council of Parishes for Southern New Jersey, said: "It is our intent that every parish should appeal once the bishop issues a decree," said Walsh, a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Pitman. "Our appeal is ready." www.courierpostonline.com/churchclose.

Scranton Bishop Resigns Under Duress 

After a tumultuous six years in leadership, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, 63, resigned for health reasons in early September. While Martino admittedly faced formidable challenges with a declining budget and burgeoning priest shortage, many believe his autocratic decision-making contributed to his departure because it alienated Catholics in the diocese. Martino's decision to close four high schools and many elementary schools outraged parents because he turned a deaf ear to their promise to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the schools open. Shortly after the schools were restructured, Martino announced he would close about half the churches in the diocese. This led to eight parishioner appeals, most of which are now in Rome. Two Scranton Catholics, Noreen and Anthony Foti, are leading the appeal to keep their own Sacred Heart Parish open. They said in the entire history of the diocese only 29 parishes had been suppressed and Martino's decision to close or merge 115 parishes was "unprecedented." Both are "encouraged at the prospect of a new bishop." (Scranton Times-Leader 8/29/09)

Sioux Falls Study Group Works to Keep Parishes Open

In Sioux Falls, SD, Bishop Paul Swain has asked for alternative plans for dealing with the priest shortage because he projects that in 2016, there will be only 55 active priests to serve 118 parishes in this rural diocese. Under a diocesan plan offered last February, 35 parishes could lose their regular Mass by 2012. But a study group representing 10 Catholic parishes is considering a proposal that would keep area churches open. While such a plan is an advantage to parishioners, the burden on priests is very heavy. "I say four Masses in a weekend now, and I am very stretched," said Rev. Bob Lacey who asked the committee to consider the potential problems for parishes whose Masses and other activities are rotated when sharing a priest. (Press and Dakotan 10/27/09)

Vatican Upholds Parishioner Appeal of Closed of British Parish

In late summer, the Congregation for the Clergy ruled that a 2008 decision by Bishop Brian Noble to close an historic church in the diocese of Shrewsbury was a violation of canon law. The ruling noted that 57% of the congregation had wanted the parish to stay open and Canon 1222 states that a church should only be closed if it causes no detriment to "the good of souls." Fran McGowan, who led the parishioner appeal said "The bishop is supposed to listen to the faithful according to Canon 385, but he has not done so." (The Tablet 8/22/09)

Cleveland Catholics Continue Activism. A group of lay Catholics concerned about the loss of 50 parishes in the Cleveland Diocese is asking Rome to appoint a coadjutor bishop to work alongside Bishop Richard G. Lennon. At a Sept. 24 press conference, Patricia Schulte-Singleton said that the step is being taken because Catholics have lost confidence in the Bishop. Schulte-Singleton is president of the group Endangered Catholics. The group, which has representation from about 15 parishes, maintains that many of the parishes targeted to close or merge should remain open because they are spiritually vibrant and financially viable.

Meanwhile, Nancy McGrath, president of a newly formed Cleveland protest group calling itself Code Purple, has filed a lawsuit claiming the Cleveland diocese has no authority under Ohio law to close churches without parishioners' consent. "It's very well established under Ohio law that a Catholic bishop holds the property of a parish in trust for the parish," said McGrath's lawyer, Robert Gippin, who has also asked the court to designate the suit as a class action. "We're saying he can't dispose of the trust or terminate the assets without the consent of the beneficiaries." But the Cleveland diocese disagrees: "Civil courts are required to respect the decisions of the church hierarchy in religious matters, such as the closing of a parish, and are constrained from interfering with the inner workings of the church by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

On a positive note, the Cleveland diocese has given the convent at St. Procop Church to the tiny nonprofit that rehabbed it five years ago. The 22-bedroom building, was given to Community Service Alliance, that uses it as a residence for men moving from homelessness to self-sufficiency. (Catholic News Service 9/25/09, Cleveland Plain Dealer 11/5/09 and 11/21/09)

At Least Fifty-Six US Parish Appeals in Rome

For the past three years, FutureChurch has tracked parishioner appeals of parish closings from all over the US. As of November 23, 2009, we estimate there are at least 56 canonical appeals from ten US dioceses at some point in the process in Rome. The actual number could well be higher, since canon lawyers advise parishioners to be discreet, to enhance the possibility of the desired outcome of a mediated settlement. The dioceses of Allentown, Boston, Cleveland and Scranton are believed to have between 8-14 appeals each. Other dioceses, such as Camden NJ, may have more as final decrees are issued.

Clevelanders Unite as 'Endangered Catholics'


Parishioners from thirteen Cleveland parishes slated to close have united to support one another and resist the loss of their parishes. Calling themselves Endangered Catholics the group meets weekly at 4:30 on Wednesdays to pray and protest outside the cathedral. On Saturday, June 27th, the Endangered Catholics sponsored an all-day meeting with Peter Borre, a Boston businessman and chairman of the Council of Parishes there. Borre spoke extensively about his involvement with the church closing process in Boston. Said Borre: "...no parish should be closed, suppressed or merged without consent of the parishioners...." On August 15-16 each parish sponsored a Marian Prayer Service. At St. Barbara parish some of the hymns and prayers were sung in Polish to honor the heritage of the founding parishioners.

Miami To Close Thirteen Parishes 

Archdiocesan Financial Practices Questioned.
On Sunday August 16, the Archdiocese of Miami announced it would close 13 of its 128 parishes. Most were minority parishes serving low-income neighborhoods. Archbishop John C. Favalora cited "demographic and economic changes which have happened over the years." Some parishioners at Our Lady Aparecida, a 1,667-member Brazilian church will be asked to attend a parish that is available only by bus. The Miami Herald reports "Catholics have created websites, initiated letter-writing campaigns and gathered for prayer vigils in hope that churches would be spared." According to the Herald the church closures are another in a series of steep financial cuts in the archdiocese. Seven Catholic schools were closed this year, and funding was cut for the archdiocese's pro-life office, pregnancy care centers and a retreat center in Hollywood. The archdiocese is also selling its MorningStar retreat center in Pinecrest. The Herald reports that some closed parish buildings may be rented to generate revenue. This happened with a number of closed archdiocesan schools that will reopen in the fall as secular, publicly funded charters. Meantime, a Miami church reform group calling itself Spirited Lay Action Movement has been raising concerns about the financial practices of the Archdiocese since 2007 when they publicized discrepancies in the Archdiocesan Vision 2000 financial reports. (see www.spiritedlayaction.org)

Cleveland Parishioners Fight to Keep Parishes Open

After Bishop Richard Lennon announced on March 14 that he would close 52 parishes in the Cleveland diocese, FutureChurch assisted parishioner groups from at least fifteen parishes who downloaded appeal and prayer resources from the FutureChurch website. They then received daily updates and extensive canonical information individualized for Cleveland so they could decide whether to appeal or not. At least 14 parishes did write formal appeals to the diocesan chancellor, most with the active support of the pastor or pastoral administrator.

Two large landmark churches, St. Colman and St. Ignatius of Antioch, which were slated to close despite recommendations from a 17-month reconfiguration process that they stay open, succeeded in their appeals. After thousands of letters from parishioners pledging financial support and vigorous intervention from members of Cleveland City Council and other political leaders, the Bishop agreed to a reprieve for both parishes. Bishop Lennon said he granted the reprieves because he had come to a better understanding of the social and community services provided by the parishes, the importance of the demographic areas served and future financial viability, provided parishioners step forward.

At this writing an estimated six to nine other parishes whose appeals were denied are appealing to the Vatican. Many came together to create an independent Cleveland coalition of parishes to support one another and are presently planning future activities.

In a number of cases, Lennon’s decisions to close a given parish went against the recommendations of his own staff, parishioners and the Diocesan Priests' Council. Easily half of the parishes slated to close were in poor urban areas of Cleveland, Akron and Lorain. Most have active congregations with important ministries in struggling urban areas.

Smithtown, New York

After a four year struggle Diane Stobodzan, a parishioner of the Byzantine Church of the Resurrection, is jubilant because her efforts to bring her parish back from the brink of destruction have finally borne fruit: "I may have been an army of one but I was persistent and never bad mouthed anyone….It has been a long difficult and painful fight but the outcome is wonderful!!! The Church is perfectly named as we are going to do it again."

According to Resurrection parishioners, trouble began in October 2005 after former pastor Rev. Daniel Bitsko, who had run the parish for 38 years, was forced out with only three days notice by the Eparchy of Passaic. The next pastor closed the nursery school and, with little warning, cancelled the church’s annual bazaar, which was a major fundraiser. In succeeding years several buildings on parish property were also demolished. Parishioners believe financial gain motivated actions by the Eparchy since the parish sits on a 5 acre property worth about $2.5 million. Weekly attendance plummeted but Stobodzian did not give up. She organized a committee who wrote letters to church authorities, political leaders and newspapers. She took many photographs and obtained legal and financial documents under the freedom of information act. Her group circulated petitions, staged non-violent protests and sought mediation in Rome. All of the hard work paid off. On May 14, the new bishop installed Fr. John Custer as permanent pastor at the Church of the Resurrection.

31 Parishioner Groups Ask Vatican Mediation

On April 7, Peter Borre of the National Council of Parishes hand delivered a request on behalf of 31 parishioner groups in eight U.S. dioceses, asking the Vatican Secretariat of State to "instruct its departments and courts to suspend reviews of appeals against parish closings, and to instruct American bishops to enter promptly into mediation with these parishioner groups." The parishioner groups were from the dioceses of Boston, Allentown, Pa., Buffalo, Cleveland, New Orleans, Scranton, Springfield, Mass., and New York. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Borre said the 18 page document seeks clarity in the financial responsibilities of both parishes and dioceses and a renewed recognition of the "principle of subsidiarity in diocesan governance." Borre has made four trips to Rome in the last five months to confer with a church lawyer and with sympathetic officials. All of them, he said, held little hope for a favorable legal outcome and advised him to seek relief "through policy." At this writing Borre is enroute to Rome for further meetings with officials in the Curia.

Over the past two months, national mainstream and Catholic media published a plethora of stories about Catholic parishioners appealing the closing of their vibrant parishes. Articles and feature stories have appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, National Catholic Reporter and aired on ABC World News Tonight.

Model for Church of the Future?  On January 6, The New York Times carried a front page story about 100 parishioners who have maintained a vigil at St. Frances Cabrini parish in Scituate, Massachusetts, for over four years.   St. Frances is one of four Boston parishes that have maintained round-the-clock vigils after the Boston archdiocese sought to suppress some 80 parishes, in part to pay clergy sex abuse bills.  Parishioners have been running the parish, leading communion services with hosts provided by a sympathetic priest, and providing other prayer experiences for those keeping vigil. Many describe themselves as having been transformed from passive Catholics to deeply involved members of a community that they believe could be a model for the future of the Church. “You would think because there are fewer and fewer priests that the various archdioceses would welcome a new configuration,” said longtime parishioner, Margy O'Brien,“Let the lay people do everything but the sacramental.” On January 26, ABC World News Tonight aired an investigative report on St. Frances Cabrini and the struggle of parishioners in Boston and New Orleans to keep their parishes open.

Vigils as Mourning?

On January 19, Time magazine published an article about parishioners in Adams, Massachusetts, who, on December 26, began a 24-hour vigil at St. Stanislas Kostka, a century-old Polish parish in the Springfield diocese.  Church leaders said it was clear that two of the three parishes in Springfield had to close because of “an acute shortage of priests” and declining attendance.  “Suffering the closing of your parish is like watching a parent die," said Monsignor Bonzagni, the diocese's director of pastoral planning. "If the parishioners at St. Stan's need to mourn this way, we will do nothing to interfere."  

New Orleans Calls for Removal of Archbishop

Monsignor Bonzagni's position is a far cry from that of New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who had parishioners arrested and forcibly removed in handcuffs from two parishes in which they had conducted vigils for 72 days.  The parishioners subsequently sent an envoy to the Vatican with a petition containing nearly 500 signatures asking Pope Benedict XVI to name a successor to Hughes “ ‘at the earliest practical time’ in light of Hughes’ management of the Archdiocese of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.” On January 30, Peter Borre, founder of a national group called the Council of Parishes, delivered the petitions and a packet of materials to a monsignor at the Congregation of Bishops in Rome.  The packet included video of the New Orleans police removing handcuffed parishioners from Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Borre reported he had “no substantive conversation” with officials, but just handed over the materials.

NCR: The Future is Now

On January 23, the National Catholic Reporter published an analytical and insightful overview of parish reconfigurations throughout the US.  Editor at large Tom Roberts quoted FutureChurch’s Sr. Chris Schenk at length about the need to keep viable parish communities together for mission. “My point is that we have Catholics who want to be in the urban region. We may be in the suburbs but we go [to the inner city] because of the apostolic mission of the community,” [Schenk] said. “We want to make that mission attractive to as many Catholics as possible and serve urban poor communities. If they are viable, vibrant communities, why would we consolidate them just because we don't have enough priests? Sustain the mission with parish life coordinators and a priest for sacramental purposes.”  The paper also ran an astute editorial pointing to the national conversation already taking place by such groups as the National Association for Lay Ministry and the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project about using lay ministers, women religious and deacons for staffing parishes. The editorial concludes:  “The future, which will require new structures, deeper involvement of lay ministers and a more mature sense of what constitutes a parish, is not somewhere down the road. It is now.”

Parishioner Advocacy Groups Growing

After the Scranton Diocese announced its decision to close 91 of its 209 parishes, a new group calling itself the Council of Parishes of Scranton/Wilkes Barre was formed by the Sacred Heart-Wilkes Barre Foundation, which was itself founded to preserve an historic, ethnic church, Sacred Heart in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This brings the total number of known US groups appealing parish closings to thirteen.

Church's Tax Exempt Status Challenged

The Diocese of Allentown’s closure of several churches has prompted two school districts and two municipalities to try to levy property taxes on the closed parishes. The government entities argue that the properties have lost their tax-exempt status by closing. Read more.