The Need for Closure: When a Parish Shuts Its Doors

By J.d. Long-García
U.S. Catholic
September 16, 2010

Parishes should have an exit strategy before shutting their doors.

The day after their farewell Mass, parishioners of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church were locked out. Archdiocesan officials had changed the locks days ahead of schedule.

So they walked around the building in Scituate, Massachusetts, desperately pulling on door handles. And then, one of the doors opened. Ever since, parishioners have kept vigil, staying in the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in protest of the closure. That was six years ago.

The parishioners of St. Frances, along with eight other closed parishes, appealed their case to the Vatican. The Vatican ruling came down this summer, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it backed the Boston archdiocese's right to close the parishes.

Boston, still recovering from the sexual abuse crisis, is ground zero for parish closings. From January 2004 to September 2005, the archdiocese closed or merged 62 parishes as part of a reconfiguration process.

"The seeds of the financial crisis are rooted in the sexual abuse crisis," insists Jon Rogers, a "vigiler" at St. Frances. In 2002 the Boston archdiocese faced hundreds of accusations of sexual abuse, most of which were settled for $86 million. The consequences of the abuse crisis left the archdiocese in a shaky financial state.

But St. Frances Cabrini was solid. Built in 1960, the parish boasted 3,000 families. While many parishes in Boston had declining numbers, suburban parishes like St. Frances were holding strong.

"We not only took care of ourselves," Rogers says, "but we built and supported churches in India."

"In Boston, the problem had a lot to do with financing. It wasn't strictly about the abuse crisis--although you can't speak about [parish closures] without that coming into it," explains Jesuit Father William Clark, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. "It's something they would have had to address, even without the abuse crisis. The finances were at a critical point."

This isn't just Boston's problem. A growing number of parishes across the United States are facing closures and mergers. It's a trend that will continue into the future, according to Jesuit Father Thomas Sweetser, director of the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project. And while finances are a major impetus for the closures, he says the shortage of priests is the No. 1 reason.

The number of priests in the United States has plummeted from nearly 60,000 in 1965 to nearly 50,000 in 1995 to just more than 40,000 in 2009, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics continues to increase--from 45.6 million in 1965 to 57.4 million in 1995 to 65.2 million in 2009. That's one priest for every 1,630 Catholics today, compared with one for 778 Catholics in 1965. But the reality of such numbers do not make the process any easier.

"It's common now, especially in areas where churches are being closed, to say the church is not a building. The church is the community," explains Clark. "That's certainly the case. But in Catholicism we've been conscious of the roles sacred spaces have to enhance people's faith."

Catholics cross themselves whenever they pass a church building. They dip their fingers in holy water when they enter one. "There are all these indicators of reverence. There's something very wise in the tradition about that," says Clark. "We don't intend to communicate that there's a way that God is more present inside a church building. But the way we treat it focuses people's attention in such a way that the building becomes a sort of a landmark of the presence of God."

The harsh reality, given the state of priestly vocations and the economy, is that the question isn't how to stop parish closures but how to do these closures well.

Parish Marriage

It didn't take long for Father Mark J. Krylowicz to discover there were some financial problems with Holy Rosary Church in Chicago. After being appointed the pastor in 2005, he got his first electric bill.

"As soon as I sat down and started looking at the checkbook, I realized they hadn't budgeted enough," he says. "The people didn't realize how bad a situation they were in." But with a new pastor in charge they found out. He tried different things to make the parish viable-establishing an endowment, a heavy evangelization effort, an increase in tithing--but it all came up short. Parishioners were giving beyond their means, and the parish had to be closed.

His efforts to save the church, however, did have an upside: He won the parishioners' trust. So when the parish faced a merger, Krylowicz--who was also pastor of St. Anthony of Padua down the street--had the "church cred" to bring his flock along. Most of the 100 English-speaking parishioners voted to join him at St. Anthony, a predominantly Hispanic parish, rather than attend another relatively close parish.

"We had the right priest at the right place at the right time," says Tod Fraund, who had been on the Holy Rosary finance council. "We saw the effort, we saw that he was trying to make it work. It was his commitment to us."

Still, parish leaders estimate they lost around 20 percent of parishioners. In a small congregation, losing these members hurt almost as much as closing the church, says Mary Ann Kopchak, who was "born and raised" at Holy Rosary.

"I saw the plan, I was part of the plan. That was the building, but it was the people who are the church, it was the people who built my faith."

Getting the majority of the congregation to buy into a parish merger isn't easy. Krylowicz, for example, was open about the financial realities the community faced, and the community tried to deal with it as a parish family. When it didn't work, he let parishioners vote on what parish they would merge with. Some might call it empowerment; others might call it ownership. But Holy Rosary parishioners, dealing with the hard reality of closing their parish, at least had some say.

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