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Parish Watch: Tracking Parish Closings in North America

Albany:  The diocese of Albany is conducting a “Called to BE Church” planning initiative that will likely close some parishes and merge others because of shifting demographics and the priest shortage.  In some parishes, such as St. Bernard’s and St. Rita/Sacred Heart in Cohoes, NY,  lay  parish life directors were appointed after the parish priest retired last June. 

Boston Awaits Vatican Ruling, Acknowledges Priest Shortage:  As four Boston parishes complete 1000 days of continuous vigil, the highest court in the church, the Apostolic Signatura, is considering a total of ten canonical appeals to reverse the archdiocese’s ruling to close their parishes. Peter Borre of the advocacy group the Council of Parishes has been encouraged by Rome canon lawyers who believe the chances of getting a favorable ruling are good.  One parish, St. James, is carrying its civil suit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile the archdiocese issued a 13-page report concluding that the number of active priests will decline from 500 to 300 in the next eight years because 30% of priests are over age 65.  It says that even more parish closings are possible if the archdiocese doesn’t begin planning now. Surprisingly, the report suggested a number of strategies common in the midwest but rarely seen in the east, such as greater collaboration between priests in neighboring parishes, a greater use of deacons and lay ministers for pastoral care, and business managers for financial matters. The document also notes that instead of closing parishes, other dioceses have assigned pastors to more than one parish, used lay “pastoral administrators” to oversee parishes, or attempted some form of “coordinated ministry” in which worship services and other programs are shared by several parishes.  Sixty-two parishes have been closed since 2004.

Buffalo Parish Appeals, Clergy Consulting Canon Lawyers:  The Buffalo diocese has completed the first third of a massive reconfiguration of its 270 parishes. Forty-one parishes will be merged to 17 with more to come. The diocese anticipates it will have 188 active priests in 2010 and 149 in 2015.

At least one Buffalo parish, St. Adalbert, has appealed the decision and sent a 20-page fax to the Vatican.  They are consulting a canon lawyer. Several other parishes are rumored to be considering appeals and have requested copies of FutureChurch’s Save Our Parish Community resource.

According to an article in The Buffalo News, an anonymous letter is circulating among diocesan priests saying that a group is meeting with civil and canon lawyers. The priests are unhappy because they were told the restructuring would ease their workload, but now discover they will be responsible for maintaining and selling empty church buildings when parishes are merged. This is on top of shepherding parishioners through the painful process of closure and the merging of diverse groups of people into new worship communities. Many priests also say the selection process was predetermined.

Cleveland Could Close 48 Parishes:  In May, Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon issued “challenges” to the diocese’s 231 parishes that could lead to 48 of 231 parishes being merged or closed.  The diocese named finances, changing demographics and the priest shortage as reasons for restructuring.  Each of 69 parish clusters must consider factors such as parish population, ministries provided and building conditions and submit recommendations to the bishop over the next year. “There is no list of parishes to be closed,” Lennon said. “However, roughly a third of the clusters are being asked to downsize.” At this writing, 55 parish leaders and priests received copies of the Save Our Parish Community resource from parishioners.

Three Syracuse Parishes Appeal:  “We’re exercising the rights we have under canon law to try to save our parish,” said Colleen LaTray of St. Mary in Jamesville, NY.  Small groups at St. Andrew the Apostle and St. Stephen in Syracuse are also appealing to the Vatican to reverse the bishop’s decision to close their churches. The group questions if Bishop James Moynihan followed church law in the reconfiguration process and some say they were not consulted, and that the closure or merger will damage a vibrant worshipping community. Monsignor Robert Yeazel, pastor of St. Mary and Holy Cross, said:  “They mean well and they want to save a church in the center of their town, but when you take the scope of the whole diocese, you can’t keep them all open.” The diocese of Syracuse scheduled 42 of its 170 churches to be closed over the next three years. By 2010 the diocese project it will have only 100 priests to serve the remaining 130 parishes, and 40 of those priests will be 75 or older.  Parishioners in the Syracuse diocese have also requested copies of the Save Our Parish Community resource.

Toledo Parishioners Try to Keep Outspoken Pastor:  The group United Parishes supported Perrysburg St. Rose parishioners in their attempt to keep their pastor, Fr. Thomas Leyland, who was transferred for publicly criticizing Bishop Leonard Blair’s plan to construct a mega-church less than five miles from St. Rose. Leyland and parishioners believed the plan compromised the ability of the parish to survive. United Parishes also plans a fall conference on September 29. (See A Look Ahead.)

St. James Parish in rural Ohio is still pursuing its civil suit against the diocese and is pushing toward their deadline of August 30th, when the Seneca County Common Pleas Court will receive a motion for summary judgment. St. James maintains that parishioners own their parishes, and that bishops only hold deeds in trust for parishioners. They believe the diocese is employing “a strategy of spending their way out of this, believing that they can outlast us.” To help the St. James legal fund go to www.stjameskansas.org.

Judge orders Cleveland Diocese to Open Books:  In late June, federal judge Ann Aldrich ordered the Cleveland Catholic Diocese to turn over thousands of pages of financial records, including information about payments made to the family of a clergyman after he was accused of molesting students. The diocese’s former chief financial officer, Joseph Smith, and a former employee, Anton Zgoznik, had been indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, fraud and tax evasion. 

Smith and Zgoznik say the diocese had hundreds of off-the-book accounts and that the money they allegedly stole was actually additional pay authorized by recently retired bishop Anthony Pilla and the Rev. John Wright, the church’s former financial and legal secretary. The diocese opposed the motion to open the books calling it a “fishing expedition” designed to smear the reputations of Pilla and Wright.  However Aldrich said: “The court disagrees, and finds that under the defense theory advanced by Smith, the documents sought are all sufficiently relevant and potentially exculpatory, warranting their production.”

FutureChurch Calls for Independent Third Party Review of Cleveland Diocesan Financial Practices:  FutureChurch is asking Northeast Ohio Catholics to write the new chief financial office in the Cleveland diocese, John Maimone, requesting a credible third-party review of diocesan finances and financial practices and establishment of substantive safeguards to assure such serious financial transgressions never happen again.  The diocese will also be asked to support, or at least not oppose, legislation requiring faith based organizations such as the Catholic Church to follow the same accountability and transparency regulations required of other non-profit organizations. The statement expresses concern that Cleveland Catholics are or will become reluctant to donate unless internal problems are addressed.

Focus on FutureChurch

Summer 2007


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