As the sun set on St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Manayunk, Father Charles Zlock stood before his parishioners in the small cemetery outside the church.
After sprinkling holy water on both the worshippers and the building, Zlock swung his incense thurifer, placed his hand on the stone wall, and said a silent prayer.
Turning to face the congregation, his final act as pastor was leading the dozens present in singing “Salve Regina” twice – once in the chant’s original Latin, once in the vernacular.
After 163 years, St. Mary’s is now closed for worship.
Reasons for restructuring
Along with St. Lucy Parish and St. Josaphat Parish, St. Mary’s was the last of three parishes in Manayunk to celebrate its final mass on Sunday. Together, they comprised the so-called “ethnic” parishes that will merge congregations and assets with the two “territorial” parishes of Manayunk, St. John the Baptist and Holy Family.
In April, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced the merger, indicating that the decisions were based on a variety of factors – demographic shifts in Catholic populations, geographical parish density, declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity, and the decrease in available clergy.
Also weighed were increasing economic challenges, most recently evinced by a June 21 announcement by the Archdiocese of a projected $17 million shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, triggering layoffs, wage freezes, and internal restructuring.
While all church functions will now take place at the parishes of Holy Family and St. John the Baptist, the ethnic parishes will remain open on a limited basis as “worship sites” – vacated church spaces that may continue to be used for funerals, and with special permission, weddings.
Subsequently, an Appeal Committee for St. Mary’s was formed, which is currently working to reverse the Archdiocese’s decision
Parish Pastoral Planning Area initiative
While still being contested at St. Mary’s, April’s closure announcement caught few Manayunk Catholics off guard.
The latest restructuring initiative began in 2010 as a result of a pastoral letter penned by Archbishop Justin Rigali, informed by parish statistics first collected in 1990.
In his missive, the late Archbishop outlined three points that the Archdiocese would use to review each parish – the demographics of each parish with respect to available priests, the financial ability needed for support and maintenance, and “the migration of our people” between parishes.
This review, known as the Parish Pastoral Planning Area initiative, began in 2011. As a result, several parishes were identified where parish mergers needed to occur – Manayunk was identified as requiring immediate attention.
“No one was surprised,” said Father Jim McGuinn, pastor of Saints Agatha and James Parish in University City. McGuinn was pastor of St. Mary from 2003 to 2010 – “seven great years,” he recalled – and said after Sunday’s mass that mergers were a “looming possibility” throughout much of his tenure in Manayunk.
A difficult and ‘painful’ adjustment
While looming mergers have accompanied the clergy and communicants of local Catholic churches for some time, closure – in every sense of the word – is proving difficult.
Terrance Rebello, a St. Mary parishioner for over seven years, said that while he understood the rationale for the mergers, the decision was emotionally trying.
Relating an attachment to the “physical space” of St. Mary’s church, Rebello also said that relationships built up over several years will be difficult to maintain.
“In the long run, it’s probably better for the Archdiocese,” he said, “but it’s still painful.”
Janet Clark, a third-generation parishioner of St. Mary and usher at Sunday’s mass, also recognized the Archdiocese’s difficult economic position and the changing demographics of the church.
While Clark wished that the Archdiocese was able to accommodate the wishes of her “warm, welcoming church,” she indicated that she accepts the decision and will try to move on.
“Next week is when the decision will hit hard,” she said.
A church in transition
While an emotional undercurrent was present at St. Mary’s final mass, Father Zlock maintained reserve and composure throughout, despite closing two parishes he administered – St. Mary and St. Lucy – and Holy Child Elementary School, all in one day.
Recalling his response to the original decision, he said that information gleaned from research by the experience of other dioceses and priests guided his thoughts.
“If this is what we have to do,” he recalled thinking, “then how do we do it well with dignity and grace?”
To assist in the transition for his parishioners, Zlock conducted off-site retreats, focusing on the spiritual and emotional dimensions of a church in transition. For himself, he consulted a 1992 Apostolic Exhortation by Pope John Paul II entitled “I Will Give You Shepherds,” written to guide the personal and pastoral aspects of those in Catholic vocations.
With his pastoral commitment to St. Mary’s now complete – and his new assignment to St. Joseph’s-in-the-Hills Retreat House in Malvern already in place – Zlock said that in the last few days, he’s begun to get choked up.
“Down the road,” he said, “I anticipate having a good cry.”