Catholic Leaders Ready Flock for Fewer Parishes

By David Crumm
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
July 1, 2005

Crippling priest shortages have led to a massive plan to close and merge dozens of Catholic parishes in southeast Michigan -- a plan that will dwarf the devastating closings of 30 Detroit churches in the 1980s.

Final details won't be unveiled until late November, said Cardinal Adam Maida, but priests are starting a full-tilt campaign this summer to brace parishioners for the changes.

"We're giving people all the information we can," Maida said Thursday about the campaign to spread the word to his 1.5 million followers in 304 parishes.

Maida declined to talk about any specific parish, but he said it's possible some of his closing and merger orders won't take effect immediately.

"Our time schedule may vary in special situations," he said.

When complete, the plan will reshape community life throughout southeast Michigan. Hardest hit will be Detroit, Hamtramck and older suburbs Downriver, in western Wayne, southern Oakland and Macomb counties.

Today's edition of the Michigan Catholic, Maida's weekly newspaper, reports that the six parishes in Southfield are planning mergers to reduce that number to three.

The closings in the late 1980s sparked vigorous protests by stunned parishioners and, even before it was fully implemented, the architect of the plan, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, was reappointed to a job at the


What's different this time is that Maida is encouraging priests to pass the word early about what's coming, including maps that show how close many churches are situated, demographic charts showing population shifts and financial data about debt in aging parishes.

That doesn't mean the closings won't hurt, the Rev. Denis Theroux told parishioners Sunday during an annual outdoor mass at St. Robert

Bellarmine in southern Redford Township. "But, we must all prepare for the future," he said.

To illustrate his point, Theroux picked up 8-month-old Logan Duncan and carried the infant in the crook of his arm as he talked about his hopes for the reorganization.

Theroux reminded his parishioners that Catholics in the northern part of their township are mourning the recently announced decision to close the 2,400-member St. Agatha in August, several months before Maida's full plan is released.

"In scripture, we're taught to believe that if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer," Theroux said.

Bouncing Logan gently in his arm, Theroux urged parishioners to welcome any Catholics looking for a new parish. And, for the sake of coming generations, he urged parishioners to remain optimistic about the

larger, regional parishes Maida envisions.

"Don't just cling to the old," Theroux told his flock. "Be willing to open yourself to the new."

The new in Redford Township, for example, is that Maida likely will reduce the six parishes to three. That conclusion is based on data about current congregation size, parish programs and long-term trends Catholic

officials already are sharing with members.

So, St. Agatha's closing order likely will be followed by orders to close St. John Bosco and St. Hilary, the two smallest parishes in Redford.

Theroux, the vicar overseeing parishes throughout northwestern Wayne County, said it's possible the plan will call for only two parishes in Redford, one south of I-96 that likely will be St. Robert Bellarmine,

and one north of the freeway.

If Maida cuts that deeply into Redford to free up more clergy, then the list of closings could include either Our Lady of Loretto or St. Valentine, parishes 1 mile apart from each other just north of I-96. So

far, the data church officials are examining shows both parishes are thriving, operate healthy parochial schools and sponsor a host of outreach programs.

So, why close either parish?

The crux of Maida's problem is this: He currently has 315 priests in 304 parishes. In some cases, one priest serves a cluster of several small churches. In other cases, especially in the booming outer ring of

suburbs, one priest struggles to serve more than 7,000 parishioners.

Last weekend at Theroux's 5,400-member parish, he presided at four masses, two weddings and two funerals and heard 30 confessions.

However, Maida's corps of priests is rapidly aging; few seminarians are replacing retiring priests, and in less than 10 years, Maida estimates, he will have only 232 priests left to assign. The staffing gap is


That's why some of the Catholic churches that are closing, including St. Agatha, dwarf neighboring Protestant parishes that consider themselves healthy, but have a tiny fraction of the Catholic membership. Most mainline Protestant congregations have 200 or fewer active members.

The nature of the Catholic staffing crisis also has led to pleas from older priests in small parishes to be spared for a few more years. That's the plea the Rev. John Nowlan is hoping will buy a few more years

for St. Hilary, where only about 70 Catholics came to mass on Sunday. "There's no great urgency for the cardinal to close our parish," Nowlan said Tuesday. "Once I leave here, I'm not going to another parish."

A similar plea is coming from St. John Bosco, scheduled on July 10 to start a yearlong celebration of its founding in 1956.

"We want to celebrate our 50th," parishioner Pat Kowalske said Wednesday.

However, Kowalske admitted that parishioners know the celebration could be cut short: "We realize that we don't have enough priests," she said. "But what's happening still is discouraging. Parishes are like families,

and nobody wants to give up their family."

Theroux said he hopes Maida will allow a flexible schedule.

"The plan should be as fluid as possible, so that, when it's put forward by the cardinal, we'll have time to put it into place," Theroux said.

"Eventually there may be two parishes left in Redford, but we could say that we'll wait until something happens to one of our pastors. Then, if there's no new priest to send here, then we might make these changes in several phases."

It's not only parishioners who are anxious about the changes, said Msgr. Michael LeFevre of Detroit, director of Maida's Office for Priestly Life and Ministry.

Priests are working on their own set of recommendations for Maida about maintaining clergy health and morale in such a tough situation.

LeFevre said that priests are raising the same questions laypeople are asking: "Is there democracy in the church? And, what about celibacy? ... We talk about all of the issues."

However, there seems to be no immediate solution to the priest shortage, LeFevre said, since suggestions of opening the priesthood to women or to married men are impossible under current church teaching.

"So, as priests, we're all stepping forward in our bulletins and our homilies to talk with people about the changed landscape ahead of us with fewer priests," he said. "We've still got lots of resources to

offer our people, but the resources are going to look different than they did in the past."

LeFevre said he's glad Maida is encouraging priests to openly discuss the pressures the church is facing.

"We know we'd all like parishes that are small and intimate. We all want to spend time with the pastor," LeFevre said. "But what we need to say to people now, and this is hard to say, but it's true: We'd love to

offer that intimate kind of parish to everyone, but we also know we can't do that anymore."