Rozanski’s call: St. Louis archbishop to decide fate of dozens of Catholic parishes

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

December 4, 2022

By Jesse Bogan

When Mitchell Rozanski was introduced more than two years ago as the next archbishop of St. Louis, he was an unknown to Roman Catholics here.

He’d grown up in Baltimore and spent his career on the East Coast. First thing he said he wanted to do was walk the land, visit and listen.

In hindsight, he was notably direct about church buildings.

“We have to take a realistic look at working with the people of the parishes,” he told reporters and others gathered at the basilica that day on June 10, 2020. “First of all, I don’t want to see a community that is burdened by buildings. Buildings are important, but buildings are not the church. It is we the people who are the church.”

Rozanski, 64, has hammered that point home as he pushes through a historic restructuring of the archdiocese, which covers the city and 10 surrounding counties. More than half of the 178 parishes may close, each including anywhere from one to multiple churches within its geographic footprint. Numerous schools are expected to shutter.

There are fewer priests and religious sisters. The number of Catholics has fallen below 500,000. Those who remain have been on the move, causing costly inefficiencies. Evangelization is needed to reclaim those who’ve left the church, as well as find new blood.

Since “All Things New” was officially announced in January, numerous possible scenarios have been teased out and discussed at hundreds of listening sessions. Feedback has been gathered. Reams of data have been disseminated with the help of a national public relations firm that specializes in these kinds of efforts.

Now the ultimate decision of what parishes to close, leave open or merge is up to one person — Rozanski, the quiet son of a company policeman whose life was molded by the kind of church network he’s set out to change.

Again, at his first public introduction in St. Louis, he told the crowd that migration patterns have challenged the Catholic church model built by European immigrants.

“The church was the center of their lives because it really was the place where their cultures were continued, where they could speak the languages of their native country,” he said, adding: “These are different times.”

Rozanski says “All Things New” is guided by the Holy Spirit. From the start, there has been a firm deadline — May 28, 2023, when Christians observe Pentecost — to announce the new parish lineup.

The effort addresses realities from decades of Catholic white flight out of the city, where parishes are clustered together, often poorly attended, yet still staffed relatively well.

As it did when the “Rome of the West” had more clout, the archdiocese is trying to catch up with its flock. Today, the largest church is St. Joseph in Cottleville, in St. Charles County, with lots of growth nearby. Overall, the archdiocese remains Eurocentric, with just 7,900 or so African Americans in the pews.

“As we go through ‘All Things New,’ and we realize that many African Americans are not Catholic, we are looking at what can we do in a Catholic presence in a neighborhood,” Rozanski told the Post-Dispatch in a recent, wide-ranging interview about his life and views. “It might not be a parish, but it might be some of the things that we are good at doing as Catholics.”

There’s been discussion about designating some areas as mission territory. However he decides to draw the line, there are just two African American priests and no Black seminarians in the wings to take on future leadership roles.

“I am very conscious of that,” he said.

He hasn’t launched any initiatives on that front.

“Certainly we have advertised in all parishes our seminary Kenrick-Glennon Days and all, but one of the criticisms that I am getting is that with the Hispanic communities, who are really majority Catholic, how many Hispanic vocations are coming out of there.”

That number is also zero.

Polish roots

Rozanski followed the trajectory of much of the American Catholic Church, built out of necessity to serve immigrants. He grew up in a Polish-American neighborhood in Baltimore, where the church helped preserve his heritage.

His great-grandparents came over first. His parents still understood the Polish language. Rozanski, the eldest of three boys, initially lived near the waterfront. In the mid-1960s, they moved just past the city line, into unincorporated Baltimore County. Their 1,139-square-foot redbrick home resembled something you’d see in Affton or Shrewsbury.

His father was a police officer for Bethlehem Steel, when it employed thousands of people. His mother stayed at home.

“Very traditional Catholic family,” Rozanski said.

Early on, he was active at church. He attended Catholic schools throughout. He was president of his senior class at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. He also kept score for the basketball team, was in drama club and studied hard enough to be on “It’s Academic,” a televised quiz show, according to the Catholic Review, a Baltimore publication. The co-ed school, attached to a parish, was partially staffed by religious sisters.

“I was even back then thinking about priesthood, so I really wanted to go to a co-ed high school,” he said. “I just wanted to have the experience of studying with boys and girls.”

His last date was the senior prom — Juliann Gostomski Ball.

“He was a regular guy — not a holy-roller or anything like that, but always serious about his faith,” Ball previously told Catholic Review. She added that he was quiet but no “stick in the mud.”

By the time he graduated in 1976, he knew he wanted to be a priest. He attended a preparatory seminary college for one year before it closed for low enrollment. As a college candidate sponsored by the Baltimore Archdiocese, he transferred to Catholic University of America in nearby Washington, D.C., where he stayed until completing the graduate theology program.

His experience was unique because he studied and lived with seminarians from numerous dioceses and religious orders. Some would be scholars. Some would be missionaries in far-off lands. Some would be dedicated to serving in local parishes, which was Rozanski’s path.

“I really felt that I had a solid base in Catholicism in growing up in a very Polish Catholic neighborhood, but Catholic U. opened my mind to the wider church,” he said. “It was really fortuitous.”

Looking back now, he said, if anything was short in his formation it would have been courses on parish management and finances. Historically, he said, priests learned that on the job from more experienced clergy, serving as associate pastors sometimes for 20 to 25 years.

“By the time my generation rolled around, there was not much time being an associate pastor,” he said.

Learning the ropes

“Father Mitch” had been ordained eight years before he was named full pastor in 1993, which, he said, seems like a long time by today’s standards. Not only was it his first time as pastor, he was the first pastor assigned to two entrenched parishes in South Baltimore — Holy Cross, settled by German immigrants, and St. Mary, Star of the Sea, settled by Irish immigrants.

“The decision to have one pastor of both parishes was kind of hastily made,” Rozanski said. “I don’t think the parishes were quite prepared for it.”

He said he was able to go into the situation and “kind of calm things down, and eventually to get them to work together.”

Each parish had historic churches, blocks from each other.

“That was the frustrating part for me in South Baltimore,” he said. “We had lots of new people moving into the neighborhood. We had lots of elderly who needed pastoral care. I was spending my time going back and forth because when something went up in one building like a furnace or whatever, something would go up again in another building. So I just felt like I was spending a lot of time in maintenance of physical buildings. And that’s not what I am called to be as a pastor.”

Rozanski said his record at Holy Cross and St. Mary, Star of the Sea likely played a role in being elevated to auxiliary bishop in 2004 when he was just 45. Technically, Pope John Paul II made the call, but Cardinal William Keeler, of Baltimore, was a supporter. Rozanski described Keeler as a “churchman to the core,” well known for his dedication to interfaith and ecumenical relations, something Rozanski also supports.

“I learned by observing that he had a vision, and he would get that vision implemented, but he had infinite patience and he worked with everybody to get on board with the vision,” Rozanski said.

Rozanski’s pastoral experience in South Baltimore, and as a Keeler mentee, seems to play into how “All Things New” is being administered in St. Louis.

Holy Cross and St. Mary, Star of the Sea still haven’t fully consolidated. They continue to share the same pastor, along with an additional church added to the mix, Our Lady of Good Counsel, which dates to 1855. Together, the three churches are now one parish: Catholic Community of South Baltimore. They share sacramental records and expenses yet still celebrate Mass at each of the three legacy church buildings.

Jennifer Smolen, business manager of the parish, said there are people in their 50s and 60s who have faced the anxiety of having their church close nearly all their lives. She respected the potentially swift consolidation in St. Louis.

“As an administrator, I appreciate the need for it,” she said by telephone. “As a parishioner, it’s difficult to watch.”

Though not as comprehensive as “All Things New,” the Baltimore Archdiocese also started talking about consolidation in early 2022, which may ultimately decide the fate of the historic churches where Rozanski got his start as a pastor. Their program, called “Seek the City to Come,” mainly looks at urban parishes.

While “prayerful discussion” is touted for Baltimore’s two-year “listening and discernment process,” some residents there, as in St. Louis, feel like decisions have already been made about future closures. Church officials pledge transparency, let the hard facts speak for themselves.

There are 57 parishes in Baltimore that together have the capacity for 25,000 people to attend Mass at one time. On a typical weekend, fewer than 2,000 are in the pews.

“The majority of churches in the city have many more funerals than baptisms,” Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski told the Catholic Review. “Some have not had baptisms or weddings for years.”

First big test

Rozanski, who also saw Baltimore’s decline through the lens of being an auxiliary bishop, got a new assignment in 2014. He was promoted to bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, which would be a tough testing ground.

The Berkshires were a beautiful backdrop to western Massachusetts, but Rozanski said the economic base had been wiped out. When students went away to college, they didn’t tend to come back.

There was also continued fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has diminished church authority during his tenure.

“It’s very disconcerting to me because my experience of church and priests growing up were men who were very dedicated to their ministry,” Rozanski said.

He recalled that there was a big snowstorm when his grandmother lay dying. Her priest found a parishioner with 4-wheel drive so he could get there in time to anoint her.

“That’s what I know about priesthood,” he said. “That’s what I grew up with.”

As a new bishop, though, it was less about active ministry and more about being an administrator.

“Certainly, Springfield was, almost as much as Boston, affected by the priest abuse scandal,” Rozanski said. “So I was dealing with the aftermath of that. And so were the priests who were in parishes because that affected them too and their ministry. I always kind of felt that that was maybe a bit of a cloud hanging over things, something that I tried to deal with as best as I could have.”

Some of it was already dealt with. In 2004, the first U.S. bishop indicted on sex abuse charges in the modern era was from Springfield. State statutes of limitations were part of what hampered the prosecution of Thomas L. Dupre. But the high-profile murder of an altar boy in 1972 remained unsolved when Rozanski showed up and a former priest remained the prime suspect.

Also, a man came forward in 2014 to report that the late Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon had sexually abused him decades ago as a young boy. The credible allegations against Weldon, who led the diocese from 1950 to 1977, took six years to come to light during Rozanski’s administration. Initial investigations by church authorities were found to be rife with mistakes and possible deception.

“I want to apologize for the chronic mishandling of this case, time and time again since 2014,” Rozanski said at a June 24, 2020, news conference in Massachusetts. “At almost every instance, we have failed this courageous man who nonetheless persevered thanks in part to a reliable support network as well to a deep desire for a just response for the terrible abuse which he endured.”

Two weeks before, there was a celebratory press event in Missouri. Rozanski’s elevation from bishop in Springfield to archbishop in St. Louis was announced.

At least one victim advocate organization publicly asked for his promotion to be stopped because of the handling of the Weldon case. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s top diplomat to the United States, told the Post-Dispatch in a brief interview at the time that Rozanski’s installation would go on as planned, regardless of the “complicated” case in question.

Rozanski was installed as archbishop in St. Louis on Aug. 25, 2020, with COVID-19 restrictions in place.

Early buy-in

Ground was soon tilled for what would become “All Things New.”

Under Rozanski’s leadership, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council beefed up its lay involvement and publicized the advisory board’s goals and work. States the meeting minutes from Oct. 1, 2020:

“We need a strong and unified group to support the Archbishop and his pastoral work and messages. We need assistance and will ask for you to assess, identify and make ongoing recommendations regarding difficult issues, like child protection, immigration, and racial equity to name a few. You may be asked to serve as a focus group or to provide feedback at times for crisis communications or issues related to campaigns that move the archdiocese forward in a thoughtful way.”

Rozanski was there to welcome everyone at the first meeting, which included lay and clergy leaders from throughout each deanery, or region, of the archdiocese. He wanted to know what they wanted him to know. And he asked what they would each do if they were archbishop.

Among the feedback:

“Racism is still very present in the Church.”

“Our strength is in our parishes.”

“We need to do a much better job at evangelizing.”

“We need to deal with the reality of aging priests and buildings and how to use the physical and human resources of the church.”

At their next meeting, May 11, 2021, Rozanski introduced John Schwob, director of pastoral planning, a guru of St. Louis Archdiocese data and trends. Among the biggest “concerns” the council gleaned from his presentation:

“Enslaved by too many buildings.”

“We need to evangelize our own Catholics.”

“We need to take action.”

Four months later, the Catholic Leadership Institute, a national firm helping run “All Things New,” was introduced to the council. Four months after that, in January, plans for the biggest change to the archdiocese in modern times hit the pews. Obvious concerns would be heard and documented from hundreds of listening sessions that have been completed.

Now it’s Rozanski’s call.