Catholic churches consolidate and close as population declines

    The sun sets behind the steeple of St. Benedict The Moor Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    The sun sets behind the steeple of St. Benedict The Moor Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Demographic trends and priest shortages prompt reorganizations.

    It’s not unusual to see full pews in a Catholic church on Easter Sunday. But even a week after Easter, St. John Vianney in Pittsburgh was bursting at the seams. That’s atypical for the church, which has lost 77 percent of its parishioners since 2005.

    They were there to say goodbye as the church held it’s closing Sunday mass. Bishop David Zubik wrote to parishioners in January, warning them about the closing of the church. He noted that weekend mass attendance had dropped from 850 to fewer than 400, and the church was $3 million in debt. The massive, 105-year-old building requires over $1 million in repairs.

    As you might expect, some of the church’s remaining congregants were not pleased with the decision. St. John Vianney, previously known as St. George Church, was the last Catholic church in Allentown — not the city with that name, but the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

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    “This is a neighborhood that is starting to bounce back, and it’s a tragedy that, as that work is starting to bear fruit, here’s the church bailing out on us,” said Bob Kress, founder of the St. George Preservation Society, which is working to save the church. “The church could be a vital part of the revitalization of Allentown, but now it’s going to be just another vacant building.”

    “When we start to see a neighborhood come back, that doesn’t mean the Catholic Church is experiencing the same resurgence,” says Bob DeWitt, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese. “It just didn’t happen in time to save St. John Vianney. Many folks who have moved in aren’t Catholics, or churchgoers at all.”

    Fewer, stronger churches

    Nationally, the Catholic Church is facing declining attendance and donations, a priest shortage and more infrastructure than they need or could possibly maintain. In Pennsylvania, these trends are exacerbated by the issues facing cities across the state, including a declining population that is aging and declining in numbers.

    Look at the Pittsburgh Diocese, a stronghold of Catholicism in the state. According to the Diocese, about a third of people in the six-county region identify as Catholic, but only 149,000 people regularly attend mass, down from 247,000 in 2000. That’s less than a third of all registered Catholics, who number 633,000. The number of baptisms is down by over half, from 8,600 in 2000 to 4,400 today. There are 59 Catholic elementary schools in the diocese, compared to 102 in 2000.

    In 2012, a third of churches in the Diocese were running a deficit. Today, that’s closer to half. Allegheny County, where the majority of the churches are located, is older and poorer than the national average, and the population is shrinking faster. None of those demographic trends bode well for the Catholic Church.

    But there is some good news: the remaining congregants are committed. Over the last two years, the Diocese of Pittsburgh launched a landmark fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $125 million to revitalize the Diocese and individual parishes. In the end, they raised $230 million from 130,000 donors, nearly 90 percent of the regular mass attendees. Most of the parishes promised 60 percent of the funds to the Diocese and kept 40 percent in the parish, often helping with long-overdue maintenance.

    St. John Vianney, when it was open, brought in twice its fundraising goal of $200,000.

    That wasn’t enough to save the parish, though. And despite the influx of funding and outreach projects, the Diocese is one year into a three-year evaluation of parish resources. Officials are going to work with parishes to assess services, ministries and debt to figure out which churches should be consolidated, merged or closed altogether.

    “We’ve got these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are starting to grow. We want to reach those people and welcome those people back, but if you’re welcoming them back into mostly empty churches, that’s not going to do it,” said DeWitt.

    Addition by subtraction

    Erie is at the other end of a similar process. After nearly two years of parish meetings and community discussion, the Diocese just announced preliminary consolidation plans.

    The Diocese plans to merge parishes into new, stand-alone churches or create partnered parishes that share clergy and administrative staff. At this time, there are no plans to close any churches, but instead they’ll be turned into secondary worship sites that can be used for weddings or special services. The decision to close a church will lie with the newly created parish.

    “We’re trying to merge parishes to make them stronger, not to take anything away,” said Deacon Martin Eisert, the chair of the pastoral planning committee. “At some point, a parish that has two churches and doesn’t need that second building might want to petition the Bishop to close that second building, but that needs to come from the parish.”

    In many cases, merging parishes will help the diocese do away with redundancy. In Pennsylvania, there has been a long tradition of ethnic or national parishes, which cater to a specific immigrant group, rather than a geographic region.

    “I’m thinking of one example, we had St. Hedwig’s, Holy Family and St. Casmir’s all within 10 blocks of each other,” said Eisert. “We brought them together into a new parish called Our Mother of Sorrows, where they can keep their Polish and Slavic traditions alive. A lot of those are not the ethnic parishes they once were. The kids come along, they don’t learn the language and they don’t care about the customs, unfortunately.”

    Erie’s pastoral planning committee has looked around the state and the region for guidance in this process, to learn “what to do and what not to do,” according to Eisert. They are not the first group to consider mass consolidation and mergers.

    In 2008, the Diocese of Allentown reduced the number of churches by 47 through mergers and consolidations. Since then, it has closed another 15.

    The Diocese was responding to many demographic trends, including suburbanization, an aging population and fewer people attending mass. But closing all those churches at once had a lot to do with the impending priest shortage that all Catholic dioceses, but particularly those in the northeast and midwest, are grappling with.

    Not enough priests

    According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there were just over 59,000 priests in the United States in 1970. In 2015, there were 37,578 priests. A 2008 CARA study determined that by 2019, more than 19,000 priests planned to retire.

    This is a national problem, but DeWitt, of the Pittsburgh Diocese, says it can be worse “depending on where you live.” The Rust Belt has been hit particularly hard. In 2000, Pittsburgh had 338 priests. Today, there are 222, and 36 of those are past the retirement age of 75. By 2025, the Diocese expects to have only 112 priests. With 199 parishes, the numbers don’t add up.

    “In Lawrence County, there are two parishes up there that don’t have [resident] priests. The priests from neighboring parishes, which are quite a ways away, they rotate to come and say Mass,” said DeWitt. “There is a deacon administrator who runs the parish, and it’s working. It’s not the solution, but it’s one way.”

    Help from a higher power

    Catholics are not alone in this trend. Protestants, Lutherans and Episcopalians have faced church closures and reorganization, particularly in the Rust Belt. Some of these abandoned churches have found new lives as community centers, schools and breweries.

    But Catholics have a special option for those who think their church deserves to remain open, an option that Kress is pursuing for St. John Vianney in Pittsburgh.

    After the Bishop announced the closing of the church, Kress and other parishioners filed an appeal with the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome. Essentially, they are asking the Vatican to override the local bishop’s decision to close the church.

    “We’ve heard it takes six months to a year to hear back,” said Kress. “If they rule in our favor, it’s likely that the diocese would appeal that. That can go back and forth a few times. It’s a long process.”

    It’s also a long shot. In June, a three-year battle to keep St. Mary’s Assumption Church open in northeastern Pennsylvania ended when the Vatican sided with the Diocese of Scranton. The church is now closed permanently. St. Joseph’s Church in Bethlehem won a partial victory in 2011. The church is supposed to be open for sacred events or Holy Days, but the Diocese of Allentown hasn’t permitted access yet.

    Churchgoers in Ohio, a state dealing with similar demographic trends, have had more success with appeals, according to In 2012, the Diocese of Cleveland re-opened 12 parishes that were closed as part of a 50-church consolidation. The Vatican ruled that Bishop Richard Lennon had not followed canon law when closing the churches. Lennon decided not to appeal the decision.

    A diocese cannot sell a church building while it is under appeal. But they can do all the other legwork to shut it down. In Pittsburgh, St. John Vianney’s debt has been absorbed into the diocese’s Parish Deposit and Loan fund, the building has been closed, locked and boarded up, and the parishioners have been divided up among three neighboring churches.

    Kress believes that one day soon, he will once again worship in the building that held the parish of St. John Vianney. But for now, his Sunday mornings are spent at St. Mary of the Mount, a neighboring parish that was itself created just three years ago in the last round of consolidations. 

    Editor’s note: The story orginally stated that the Diocese of Pittsburgh was starting a two-year reorganization. The Diocese is one year into a three-year reorganization. The story also stated that the Diocese of Pittsburgh absorbed St. John Vianney’s debt. The diocese’s Parish Deposit and Loan fund absorbed the debt. 

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