Neighborhoods Stand to Lose Far More Than Just a Church They'll Lose a Lifeline

By Patricia Montemurri
The News-Observer
February 15, 2012

DETROIT -- On the east side of Detroit, the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church is the anchor of a neighborhood that has seen the addition of 14 new homes and a 62-unit senior center.

Joyce Anderson, an administrative assistant for the Wayne County, Mic., Prosecutor's Office, moved into a new house two years ago, in part, because of Nativity's outreach in the neighborhood.

Now Nativity is fighting a recommendation that calls for the parish, and three others on the east side, to close.

"The church is really the reason I'm here. They were building up the community," said Anderson, 56, who is not Catholic. "If they closed, all the positive energy would go with them."

"If Nativity leaves," Anderson said, "I'm gone."

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit is reviewing recommendations to close up to 20 churches in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, and about 30 more in the suburbs. The pending closures - which are expected to be finalized this month - could shrivel the church's urban footprint to nearly one-third of the 112 parishes that existed in Detroit and its enclaves in 1988.

Since 2000, about 25 parishes have closed in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. Recently, at least seven parishes in the suburbs have decided to close or merge in the next year or two. But unlike the pending suburban closures, many of the urban parishes didn't ask to be closed.

Many of the threatened urban parishes provide services to poor and homeless people. They are beacons of stability. And they are fighting to stay open.

"If it is providing food services, helping the homeless, closing (a church) is really a symbolic death knell of a neighborhood," said demographer Kurt Metzger, who directs Data Driven Detroit and shared population trends and statistics with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, which made the closure recommendations.

"Whether they're Catholic or not, people view the churches as community magnets and a community resource," Metzger said. "When the church goes - in many cases - it's the last thing there."

Archdiocese statistics show about 10,000 Catholic households live and worship in Detroit, while 7,700 Catholic households commute from the suburbs to urban churches. But the city's churches were built for Detroit's boom times - when half the population was Catholic.

"It's just a tough problem. These Catholic parishes were built to last with magnificent churches. The vision coming over from Europe wasn't that it would be a two- or three -generation or 50- or 70-year project," said John McGreevy, a history professor and dean at the University of Notre Dame who wrote the book, "Parish Boundaries," which dissect s the Catholic church's involvement in the civil rights movement.

"With white flight from Detroit, and a population decrease independent of white flight," he said, "it's been hard to figure out how to sustain them."

Metzger said closing the urban churches also diminishes the link between the city and suburbs. Those churchgoers who drive from the suburbs are "so tied because they got baptized or got married there, even as they've abandoned the city," he said. "Closing a church is another psychological blow, and they could sever all ties with the city."

Like many issues confronting metro Detroit, the pending church closures are also underlined by a question of race: Many of the struggling congregations are primarily African American.

"They're whistling in the wind if they think everybody at one parish will go to another," said Camille Douglas, a member of the Church of the Madonna.

"It's not the first time that urban black parishes are being closed. Some of our parishioners have had two or three parishes close underneath them. It's more likely they'll stop attending a Catholic church."

Madonna - the parish from which the late Father William Cunningham helped found the social services agency Focus: HOPE - is on the chopping block.

Douglas, 59, who was laid off from her job as administrative associate of Madonna, now volunteers at the church on Tuesdays. Parishioners proposed keeping Madonna alive as an urban training center for seminarians studying for the priesthood at nearby Sacred Heart Seminary. Madonna's proposal call s for five seminarians in their final year of studies to be assigned to the parish.

Madonna has suffered in attendance following Cunningham's death in 1997 and has been without a full-time pastor much of that time.

The Madonna parish has gone from about 500 families to half that, and Douglas said the parish owes the archdiocese about $1.4 million.

"What's speaking most to (the archdiocese) is money, and we don't have any," Douglas said. "They're not going to hear what we have to say because we don't have money."

Archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said the archbishop has received letters and e-mails from concerned parishioners and priests lobbying against the proposed closings.

"Regrettably, we don't have a time machine to go back in time 50-60 years. We don't have a treasury to print money," McGrath said. "Decisions that need to be made will be, more often than not, difficult. But each and every one is being made in an effort to secure Catholic faith communities and their presence in southeast Michigan."

Before the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council made its recommendations in November, its members met with groups of parishioners, who had been coming up with ways to deal with the priest shortage. The archdiocese deluged the parishioners with statistics showing population loss, job loss, foreclosure rates and other data to better assess a parish's long-term outlook.

But some of those who participated in the meetings say the archdiocese ultimately ignored parishioners' ideas and hard work.

A group of west side Detroit pastors met in January to voice their concerns to Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon.

Among them was the Rev. Charles Morris, pastor of St. Christopher parish on Detroit's west side, who said the pastors asked that they be allowed to determine their parishes' directions "more organically," as the need arises, rather than having a plan dictated to them by the archdiocese.

"We understand there is a shortage of priests and (that there are) half-empty churches," Morris said. "But you still have to have the pastoral presence in the city."

Rhonda Gilbert, 67, of Detroit, a longtime parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo, near Belle Isle, was one of the 25 members of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, the body that issued the recommendations for parishes to close, merge or cluster.

Gilbert said she was stunned when she learned that the council issued a recommendation that St. Charles, plus the parishes of Nativity, Good Shepherd and SS. Augustine-Monica merge into one parish, sell their landmark sanctuaries and build a new environmentally friendly church along the East Jefferson corridor.

"At no point did that come up in our discussions," Gilbert said. "It bothers me that people who are in no way connected with the parishes may be able to usurp the work of the people from the parishes."

At St. Charles, vans bring the elderly and frail who live in adult foster care homes on East Grand Boulevard to mass every Sunday. A rotating group of volunteers staffs the office and tends to the grounds. The parish, with about 400 members, is financially solvent, Gilbert said.

Metro Detroit's Catholic community is not alone in the battle to remain relevant.

Since 1995, some 1,373 Catholic churches have closed in the U.S., Jason Berry, a New Orleans-based author, reported in his latest book about the Catholic Church, "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church."

While demographic changes underlie much of this, dioceses such as Boston used church shutdowns to cover financial losses incurred by the priest sex abuse scandal, Berry said.

"This phenomenon is national in scope. The downsizing that we see the church undergoing is partly driven by financial mismanagement," Berry said. "But it's also driven by bona fide social realities and demographics. It's almost like two tectonic plates pushing against each other."

At St. Leo's Catholic Church, just a mile and a half up Grand River from Motor City Casino, the parish's basement is home to a soup kitchen - run mostly by volunteers from outside the parish - and medical and dental offices that provide free health care to the neighborhood's indigent . It is operated by the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Malta.

The archdiocesan panel has recommended that St. Leo close, but keep its outreach center open and that its parishioners be merged with St. Cecilia parish, with which it now shares a pastor. That has its parishioners and the population it serves worried.

Donna Acuff Jackson, 52, of Detroit was waiting to see a doctor Wednesday at St. Leo's medical clinic in the basement.

When people hear the words "St. Leo," said Jackson, "they know it's a caring, sharing church and it does a lot of hard community work for people who are really in need."

She said the free treatment she has received there has helped her stabilize her diabetes. She couldn't afford to go to doctors because she said she couldn't stretch her husband's retirement income to cover co-pays for visits and prescriptions, which she gets free at St. Leo.

Parish finance committee director Derek Edwards, a small -business banker from Farmington Hills, said it's foolish to close the church yet keep the outreach center open.

"It really is a gem of the city and should be treated that way," Edwards said.

If St. Leo closes, Edwards said: "I think it becomes a step in the process of the Catholic Church removing itself from the inner city."


The Archdiocese of Detroit said pending parish closings are necessary because of the severe priest shortage.

In the next 10 years, the archdiocese expects to have nearly one-third fewer priests than the approximately 290 who now run parishes in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe, Lapeer and St. Clair counties.

By 2021, the archdiocese has projected it will have only 192 priests to serve. The average age of priests serving in parishes is about 57. There are currently 116 priests between the ages of 60 and 79 working in parishes, and 50 percent of them are likely to be retired or die in the next 10 years, the archdiocese projects.

Meanwhile, an average of only four priests are ordained each year in the archdiocese.

Across the archdiocese, the average priest-to-people ratio is 1 to 2,839 parishioners, compared with 1 per 2,135 10 years ago.


"By works a man is justified, and not by faith alone." James 2: 24

The staff at St. Benedict in Highland Park was laid off last summer. But the faithful continue to work.

Paul Moore, the now volunteer pastoral administrator, lives on-site and rents out the school, rectory, convent and gymnasium so that St. Benedict can make a $30,000 monthly debt payment to the Archdiocese of Detroit.

On a recent Sunday, Moore opened up the 86-year-old church, which seats 1,000, for about 50 people to attend mass.

"I think a layperson could run a parish. You don't need a priest to run a parish," said Moore, 64. "I go see people in the hospital and bring communion. I evangelize in the neighborhood. When people need help, they come here."

St. Benedict and as many as 20 other Catholic churches in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck may need more than faith to fight closure in the coming years. About 35 percent of urban parishes can't pay their bills, archdiocese officials say.

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit is to announce this month which urban parishes - as well as some 30 parishes in the suburbs - will close. The urban closures, especially, will shrink the spiritual viability of an area beset by joblessness and poverty.

"When a Catholic church closes, the effects on the community are devastating," said Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey, the pastor of St. Paul A.M.E. church in Detroit.

Spivey, who attended the shuttered St. Mary's of Redford grade school, gets how the church's financial needs and a lack of priests clash with Detroit's spiritual and social demands.

"It's the perfect storm right now, because the city can no longer replace those services," Spivey said. "There's a tremendous void in the community, whether the church is serving one or 1,000 persons."


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