17 parishes would close under plan
Officials said the changes, which would affect 33 churches with more than 5,000 members, were needed because of the dwindling number of priests and shifts in population patterns and church attendance over the decades.
"As painful as change can sometimes be, this is not about gloom and doom, but a future filled with hope, and I am confident that we will succeed with God's help," Bishop Leonard Blair said in announcing the recommendations yesterday at the Catholic Center in downtown Toledo.
Most of the targeted parishes were founded in the 19th or early 20th centuries when people traveled by horse and buggy, Bishop Blair said, and many of the churches were formed to serve ethnic neighborhoods that either have faded away or disappeared altogether.
"There have been tremendous changes in the way people live, travel, and associate with each other over the last century," Bishop Blair said.
Two of the historically important churches marked for closure, St. Francis De Sales - Toledo's oldest church and its first cathedral - and St. Anthony's, could be designated as shrines, allowing them to stay open and hold special services but without having a priest assigned to them.
Bishop Blair said he will hold town hall-style meetings with parishioners starting next month and plans to make a final decision on the recommendations by March 1.
Changes would take effect July 1.
Sister Joyce Lehman, head of the six-member Parish Futures Task Force that made the recommendations, said panel members spent more than two years poring over data for each parish in the diocese, which has about 307,000 members in 19 northwest Ohio counties.
The panel looked at population shifts and 30 years' worth of parish statistics, including membership, Mass attendance, finances, and the numbers of baptisms, weddings, and funerals, Sister Joyce said.
She and Bishop Blair asserted yesterday that finances were not the driving force behind the recommendations.
The need for realignment was apparent well before the U.S. Catholic Church sex scandal erupted in 2002, Sister Joyce said.
Money paid to settle sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Toledo diocese - $1.19 million this year, the bishop said last month - came from the diocese's self-insurance fund and was not a factor in the recommended closings, Sister Joyce said.
Bishop James Hoffman appointed the panel in fall, 2001, with three clergy: the Rev. Jim Brown; the Rev. Michael Billian, the diocese's episcopal vicar; Sister Joyce; and three lay people, Michael Wasserman, secretary of the pastoral leadership secretariat; Diane Saccone, and Kevin McKenna.
The panel completed its work in 2003, but its recommendations were put on hold after Bishop Hoffman's death from cancer in February, 2003, until Bishop Blair's installation in December.
Although the recommendations were based on extensive research, Bishop Blair said he is "just beginning" the process of talking with parishioners about the proposals.
"I haven't made up my mind. I need to hear from the people," he said.
The bishop said that although the announcement will cause anguish for many faithful Catholics, he urged them to be patient and "think through" the reasons behind the recommendations.
Sister Joyce said the biggest concern was the church's priest shortage.
The total number of diocesan priests is expected to drop from 194 in July, 2003, to 159 by 2012, and in that time frame the number of priests assigned to parishes is projected to fall from 114 to 84.
In the 17 recommended closings, each of the parishes would join an existing one nearby.
In the creation of six new parishes out of 33 existing ones, the new parishes would get new names, but services could be held in one of the existing churches.
A completely new parish would be created in southwest Lucas County to meet the population growth in that area, Sister Joyce said.
The Rev. Joseph Steinbauer, pastor of Little Flower Parish in Toledo, oversaw the creation of All Saints Parish in Rossford, which was formed in 1990 from Ss. Cyril and Methodius and St. Mary Magdalene.
It took about four years before parishioners were able to get over the grief of losing their church and adapting to a new parish, Father Steinbauer said yesterday.
Parishioners held farewell services, sealed the doors to their old churches, and then held block parties.
"It was difficult to say goodbye," Father Steinbauer said.
He advised parishioners to be honest with themselves about their emotions.
"It's OK to feel what you're feeling," he said.
"But as Catholics, we believe in the Paschal mystery - that after death, there is a new life."
Sister Joyce said that in addition to the meetings with Bishop Blair, concerned parishioners can leave comments by phone at 419-244-6711, Ext. 2004, or online at www.toledodiocese.org.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.
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