Diocese Meets with Area Parishes for Long-Term Planning
Officials Say Church Closures Would Be a Last-Choice Option

By Rich Adams
Cheboygan Daily Tribune
August 22, 2008

GAYLORD, Mich. - A series of parish town hall meetings are being scheduled throughout Northern Michigan to determine the future of the various Catholic churches in the Diocese of Gaylord.

A shortage of clergy is prompting the Diocese to look at each church and come up with a list of long-term goals.

But that doesn't necessarily mean church closings, as was the case in the 1990s in Cheboygan County.

"The Parish and Personnel Task Force has been working for about two years," said Candace Neff, director of communications for the Diocese. "It is made up of people throughout the Diocese. It has worked on short-term goals, and is now working on the long-term goals."

The individual parish meetings will take place during the next few months and church officials will encourage parishioners to reflect on their churches.

"We will be having the meetings and individual churches will be asked to consider the strengths of their parishes and the challenges," Neff explained. "They also will complete a self-evaluation tool and return it to us, at which point we will look at what the parishes do and what their ministries are."

But does that mean closing doors on churches?

"Will it result in closed parishes? That's the last resort," Neff said. "That's not the first choice of anything, but might it happen? It might."

But how the results of the town hall meetings might affect local churches is still a ways in the future.

Straits-area churches that could be affected include St. Anthony's in Mackinaw City, St. Mary/St. Charles and Sacred Heart in Cheboygan, Cross in the Woods in Indian River, St. Clement in Pellston and St. Paul's in Onaway.

"We haven't even begun talking about what the future looks like," Neff said. "We need to get our information from the parishes and parishioners before we even start talking about closing churches."

Meetings for the two Cheboygan parishes are scheduled in September, Neff said.

According to a Diocese newsletter, current projections indicate that by the year 2010 the Diocese of Gaylord will have approximately 30 active priests to care for the needs of 81 parishes. The Diocese encompasses more than 11,000 square miles with 81 parishes and 17 Catholic schools, including Cheboygan's Bishop Baraga School. only 25 parishes have their own dedicated pastor, or a priest serving as an administrator, according to the newsletter. Forty-nine parishes in the Diocese share a pastor, three parishes are served by a parish life coordinator and two are in the care of a lay administrator. Those five parishes depend on a sacramental minister to provide sacramental care, usually a retired priest or a preist from a neighboring parish. Four parishes currently have no weekend masses.

Church closings were an issue in Cheboygan County in the 1990s, when several of the smaller churches were shuttered. Sacred Heart in Riggsville was on the list of churches to close, but parishioners maintained a vigil inside the church and officials relented and kept the parish intact.

According to a July article in the Toledo Blade, Sister Christine Schenk, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order and the executive director of the Catholic reform group FutureChurch says the priest shortage is cause for concern.

Schenk said there are 18,000 active diocesan priests in the United States today, and if present rates of ordination, retirement, and death continue there will be 11,500 priests 20 years from now.

Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the United States has been rising from 45 million in 1965 to more than 63 million today. She adds that there are 550 parishes in the United States that are led by parish life coordinators.


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