Diocese's Recommended Consolidations Reflect Move Away from Ethnic Parishes

By Erin Moody
Citizens Voice
August 25, 2008

The preliminary recommendations and the inevitable consolidations for the Scranton Diocese are facilitating a move away from national, or ethnic, parishes built by and for people who wanted and found comfort in being surrounded by people who spoke their language, shared their traditions and understood their values.

According to the diocese's suggestions for restructuring, 29 of the remaining 34 national parishes in the southern region would be consolidated. The southern region makes up the majority of Luzerne County.

The diocese is encouraging a merging of people and traditions in a time when priests, parishioners and donations are spread too thin to maintain a sprawling and segregated Catholic community.

In Luzerne County, parishes with Polish, Italian, Lithuanian and other ethnic backgrounds can be found in almost every town, often only blocks away from the territorial Catholic parish, where all Catholics living in an area worship, regardless of ethnicity.


More than a century ago, a congregation of people of German heritage decided to start St. Boniface Parish in Wilkes-Barre. Parishioners previously had to travel down to the German parish, St. Nicholas on Washington Street, or go to one of the territorial parishes for Mass and school.

"Children had to cross railroad tracks to get to school; it was dangerous," Brother DePorres Stilp said. "So they tried to make a new church here in the neighborhood."

Stilp's grandfather was one of the founding members, and for years the parish, which celebrated Mass in German and English, was a center for the German Catholic community in the area.

Many of the national parishes in Luzerne County that are historically attended by people and practice traditions from one ethnic background grew up in this manner, according to the Rev. Hugh McGroarty, senior priest at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pittston.

The first immigrants to the area were mostly Irish, and they built Catholic parishes. However, when immigrants from other areas of Europe came, many lived in the same communities and wanted to worship with people who spoke their languages and shared their culture. So the Catholic Church gave many of these groups of immigrants national parishes, and made the parishes built by the Irish territorial so anyone in the area could attend.

"There's no Irish church," McGroarty said. "There was one church in the area, and so the Polish made their own. And the Slovaks came in, and so on. The other church, which they called Irish, was for everyone."

So as the Wyoming Valley's population grew with immigrants who settled here, the Catholic community also grew in population and diversity.


Wars were fought. The coal industry fell. Ethnic divisions began to blur as people with different backgrounds married. Fewer immigrants moved into the area and younger generations grew up never seeing the homelands of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

The changes were reflected in the Catholic Church. As the community changed, more and more people began to attend church regardless of a parish's ethnic origins. The changes started at St. Boniface after the wars, Stilp said.

"The thing has changed," he said. "Now it's not as much of a German congregation as it was. We like to consider it a German church, but I have the reality to know it isn't, per se."

Many parishes held on to their roots, but, McGroarty said, there aren't nearly as many traditions and ethnic bonds as in the past.

"There isn't that much," he said. "The tradition is with the old people."

The number of practicing Catholics nationwide has fallen in the past decades, and so have the number of priests. In 1966, 476 priests were in active service for the Diocese of Scranton, the most in its history. Since then, the numbers have fallen dramatically. There are fewer than 190 active priests today.

So the diocese has turned to linking parishes and sharing programs, priests and services. Before 1999, the diocese had closed only nine parishes since 1875. However, 30 parishes have been closed since 1999. The diocese has also implemented 93 parish restructurings over the years, and more than half have occurred since 1991.

The diocese recognizes the history and background, and included this statement in the preliminary recommendations for one cluster in the eastern region.

"At this time in our diocesan history, while the rich diversity of ethnic heritage has helped to form the people and structures of our Catholic communities, it can no longer be the sole determinant for future planning. Called to Holiness and Mission (the diocese's restructuring plan) directs us to deepen our Catholic identity beyond our ethnic roots by evangelizing and welcoming all."


While the diocese hasn't made any official decisions and the preliminary recommendations for parish restructuring are exactly that, preliminary, one thing is for certain — the current parish structure will be shaken up and some programs and parishes will have to go.

And, according to those preliminary recommendations, a good majority of the national parishes could be consolidated with ones from other ethnic backgrounds or the territorial parishes. The Polish Holy Family and territorial St. Charles Borromeo parishes in Sugar Notch have already been sharing a pastor and some programs for several years. Pastor Vincent Dang said the arrangement has been working out. The preliminary recommendation is to consolidate the parishes into one.

"We still keep the heritage, but we're all Americans, we're all Catholics," he said. "The more you accept, the more you become whole. Sometimes it's challenging, but we have to accept and look beyond."

Although the flow of European immigrants to the area has slowed, the Hispanic population is booming. Aware of this situation, the diocese is developing programs to welcome this largely Catholic group of people.

Monsignor Joseph Kelly, administrator at the Church of the Holy Rosary in Wilkes-Barre, is the Episcopal Vicar for Hispanic Ministry in the diocese.

"The Hispanic community is very young and they have a lot of children, so obviously young families bring a new life blood into many activities," Kelly said.

Approximately 90 percent of the students in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes are Hispanic, and Holy Rosary, along with a handful of other parishes in the diocese, offers Mass in Spanish. When the Spanish-language Mass started seven years ago at Holy Rosary, 22 people attended. Today, about 350 people attend.

It's been a big change for Holy Rosary, which is a traditionally Italian parish. But, by working together and sharing traditions, it's became a richer experience, Kelly said. For example, the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua is very important for Italians and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe for the Hispanics, he said. Also, Christmas in Italian tradition is a huge celebration, and the Latino celebration is really the Feast of the Three Kings.

"Like all cultures, you take on the best of both and that's what's happened in most of our parishes." Kelly said. "It's very important that we don't lose what's important in our traditions."

Contact:, 570-821-2051.


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