Today, there are 23 fewer Catholic parishes in the four Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia than there were five years ago.
Two more churches, both in Delaware County, must now take a hard look at their ability to stay open over the long term, according to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
St. Charles Borromeo in Drexel Hill and Sacred Heart in Clifton Heights, along with Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Nicholas of Tolentine, and St. Rita Cascia, all near East Passyunk in South Philadelphia, are tasked with examining their long-term viability.
Announced in 2010, the Parish Area Pastoral Planning Initiative has pruned the number of Catholic parishes across the region from 266 to 219. In the four-county region, the number fell from 160 to 137.
“It’s not the first rodeo I’ve been at,” said the Rev. James Lyons of St. Charles Borromeo. Lyons was a pastor in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia when its Catholic parishes consolidated.
In this most recent round, the archdiocese has expanded the number of ways forward, according to spokesman Ken Gavin.
The first option is a merger, said Gavin, where church administrations merge and “you have one main church with the other church or churches remaining open as worship sites.” In the second option, churches remain open and independent.
The third and final possibility is a “partnership,” Gavin said. In that arrangement, “the parishes do not merge, they both remain freestanding entities, but they do so under one parish and one council,” while their finances remain separate. That option is new and hasn’t been used yet in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but is modeled on working models elsewhere, according to Gavin.
Lyons said he’d prefer the two Delaware County parishes, each with congregations of about 1,200 families, to remain independent.
However, he said, he could see room to reduce expenses at both by sharing some staff or services.
“They’ll probably need some kind of a change because they’re both small and they both can benefit from combining some of the ministries,” he said. According to Lyons, the benchmark enrollment for a parish is 2,500 families per pastor.
Starting on Thursday, parishes in the planning initiative will meet to go over available data and to start formulating their suggestions to the archdiocese. Archbishop Charles Chaput is expected to make a decision on all five of the parishes now under consideration for changes in spring 2016.
Lyons said he doesn’t expect St. Charles Borromeo to be his last assignment. “The motto of the seminary is exiit qui seminat,” or in English, “the one who goes out sows,” according to the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary’s website.
“So when they tell you to go, you go,” he said.