A hushed sense of devastation rippled through the congregation of St. Mary of the Assumption on Sunday as Rev. Charles Zlock delivered the Archdiocese’s decision regarding the fate of five Manayunk parishes.
For three churches, the final word is closure.
Citing changing economic and demographic factors, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that St. Mary Parish and St. Lucy Parish are to close, with their congregations to be merged with that of St. John the Baptist. St. Josaphat will close and be merged with Holy Family.
The resultant parishes will retain the names St. John the Baptist Parish and Holy Family Parish.
The implementation process will become effective July 1.
In a statement released by the Archdiocese, the mergers were based on numerous indices, which include demographic shifts in Catholic populations, geographical parish density, declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity. Also weighed were increasing economic challenges and a decrease in available clergy.
The same statement related a statistical overview of attendance and sacramental activity at the five Manayunk parishes.
In 2010, average weekend attendance at St. Lucy was listed as being 214 people. In the same year, weekend attendance at Holy Family was 422.
The release also indicated that St. Lucy Parish maintains a “significant operating deficit.”
St. Mary’s weekend attendance in 2010 was described as 276, significantly lower than St. John the Baptist’s 748. St. John the Baptist – the “Mother Church of Manayunk” – was described by the Archdiocese as having the largest church building in the neighborhood.
Attendance at St. Josaphat was among the lowest affected by the archdiocesan-wide merger process, with weekend attendance at 198.
In the same statement, Archbishop Charles Chaput recognized the difficulties inherent to parish restructuring.
“Change is rarely easy,” he said, and added that “we do need to take these steps to help every parish more effectively promote the Gospel and strengthen the future of our Catholic life together.”
St. Mary, St. Lucy, and St. Josaphat are known collectively as the “ethnic parishes,” as each originally served a specific immigrant population. Respectively, they served the German, Italian, and Polish communities in Manayunk.
St. John the Baptist and Holy Family are “territorial” churches, with congregations traditionally defined by geographic boundary.
While all church functions will take place at the parishes of Holy Family and St. John the Baptist after the July 1 implementation date, 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.
Asked for his response to the decision, Rev. Zlock, pastor at both St. Lucy and St. Mary parishes, directed Newsworks to a statement on his website.
Professionally, he expressed hope, referencing “new and exciting organizations and leadership initiatives” deriving from both the Archdiocese and Pope Benedict.
Personally, he indicated that he is “sad and frustrated.”
Asked for wider implications of the merger process, Rev. Zlock deferred remarks for a later time.
Rev. Leonard Lewandowski, pastor of St. Josaphat, was not immediately available for comment.
Whatever their stances, the destiny of priests assigned to the merging parishes is uncertain. The Archdiocese related that final parish staffing decisions will not be announced until May.
Reviewing each parish
According to documents provided by the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee [ASPC], the foundation for the current parish restructuring process was laid in 1990, when the Archdiocese began monitoring the demographic and spiritual life of its 266 parishes.
“Changes in these areas became more pronounced since 2000,” said the document, prompting the formation of the ASPC.
The latest restructuring initiative began in 2010 as a result of a pastoral letter penned by Archbishop Justin Rigali entitled, “Called to Conversion and Holiness.”
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.”
Asked to clarify the meaning of the last phrase, Kenneth Gavin, associate director of communications for the Archdiocese, affirmed that Rigali spoke in regard to shifting demographics between parishes – not away from the church.
This review, known as the Parish Pastoral Planning Area [PPPA] initiative, began in 2011.
As a result, “several places were identified where parish mergers and the formation of new parishes needed to happen sooner.”
Developing and implementing pastoral plans
According to a statement made to Newsworks by the Archdiocese, “certain areas, Manayunk among them, were identified as requiring immediate attention.”
The same statement indicated that in September of 2011, the plan developed by the Archdiocese was presented to pastors at all five Manayunk parishes.
Gavin said that no formal release of the Archdiocese’s consolidation plan for Manayunk and other parishes was made. Rather, information was spread via church bulletin inserts and through pastoral communications via the pulpit following Thanksgiving.
Subsequent to these announcements, on Dec. 14, the Archdiocese formally announced the rollout of the PPPA, wherein 22 of 44 Pastoral Planning Areas – each made up of several parishes within the same geographic vicinity – began work to develop and implement their Parish Pastoral Plans.
It indicated that there are two possible outcomes possible from this plan: establish plans for future sustainability with no immediate alterations to parish structure – or initiate mergers.
Discussing the options
By this time, work was already underway at the parish level to begin the dialogue about the Manayunk parish mergers.
In a December bulletin insert, Zlock told his congregation that Archbishop Chaput indicated a willingness to involve the parish community in the decision-making process.
“This extended process,” he wrote, “provides the opportunity for our parish community to further review and offer observations regarding the merger plan.”
Town hall-style meetings were held for parishioners of St. Mary’s and St. Lucy’s to begin the process of community review and response.
Concluding the public consultation period, leaders and communicants of the Manayunk parishes met at St. Mary’s in late January to discuss their options collectively.
As a result of these meetings, an alternative plan – in which a merger of the three ethnic parishes was suggested, with the territorial parishes left unaltered – was forwarded to the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee in early February.
The plan’s authors claimed that under their counterproposal, the resultant parish – comparable in size to St. John – “requires only one priest, is designed to grow, has large parking capability, is in good physical condition, and is financially viable.”
Lastly, this plan would, in the eyes of the authors, “ensure (that) the greatest number of parishioners will join the merged parish.”
‘We’re all in mourning’
As evinced by the Archdiocese’s decision, the alternative plan was untenable. Parishes now begin the work of implementation – and transition.
According to a “Frequently Asked Questions” document regarding mergers issued by the Archdiocese, all buildings, assets, and liabilities will be transferred to the new parishes.
Parish employment may also be effected. “Some jobs may be eliminated,” the FAQ states, “but new positions may also be created.” The pastor is tasked with the final determinations in staffing decisions.
The FAQ also includes directives for emotional transition, indicating a need for “rites and rituals to ensure that parishioners recognize a realistic and hopeful future.”
To this end, St. Mary will host a Day of Mourning this Saturday. St. Lucy will hold a similar event the following day.
There is also the possibility for more appeal.
Under the Code of Canon Law, parishioners “aggrieved” by Archdiocesan decisions may petition Archbishop Chaput for additional consideration.
While much remains to be finalized, there are many Manayunk parishioners who are hurt by the merger.
Marion Yodsnukis, 47, of Manayunk, said she doesn’t understand the decision, and seeks reasons for it.
With generations of her family having attended St. Mary, Yodsnukis spoke tearfully to the feelings of her fellow churchgoers.
“We’re all in mourning,” she said.