Saturday, October 16, 2010

Archdiocese to close 20 churches, merge others

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The plan, part of the largest reorganization in the 160-year history of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was shared with priests and parish workers on Friday. Congregants will learn the specifics at weekend masses.

In a dramatic move sure to stir deep emotions in Roman Catholic parishes across the Twin Cities and beyond, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will formally announce plans Saturday to close about 20 churches and merge many parishes as it grapples with shrinking budgets, changing demographics and a dwindling number of priests.

The plan, part of the largest reorganization in the archdiocese's 160-year history, was shared with priests and parish workers on Friday. Congregants will learn the specifics at weekend masses.

The structural changes are not scheduled to begin before January 2011 and are likely to be gradually implemented over the next several years, according to the Rev. Peter Laird, archdiocese vicar general and co-chairman of the 16-member planning task force that made the restructuring recommendations to Archbishop John Nienstedt in July.

The restructuring will profoundly affect many parishes in the sprawling archdiocese, which spans the metro area and many outlying communities. In northeast Minneapolis, long home to several churches, for example, Holy Cross, St. Clement and St. Hedwig are slated to close, merging with St. Anthony of Padua, which will stay open.

Five churches in St. Paul will also close and merge with other parishes, including St. Andrew, which will become part of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin; St. Francis de Sales, which will merge with St. James; St. John, which will become part of St. Pascal Baylon; St. Thomas the Apostle, which will merge with Blessed Sacrament, and St. Vincent de Paul, which will be absorbed into the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Laird could not say how many of the 3,800 full-time employees who work within the archdiocese may lose their jobs as part of the reorganization. A plan outlining the number of schools in the archdiocese that could also face possible closure probably won't be released until after January, he said.

"The decisions of the strategic plan were not made lightly, because it affects people's personal lives, in a way, the deepest core of their life, their experience with God," Laird said. "It's a very sacred thing. In the same way, I'd say to them, there's reason for hope here because we're not abandoning anything, and we're certainly not abandoning you.

"The invitation before us all is to reinvest in the church of the archdiocese, the local church, so we can hand down to our children and grandchildren what we've received," he said.

Moves a response to debt

The plan's release comes after a year and a half of study by archdiocesan officials, who also sought input at nearly 150 public meetings. Nienstedt has said major change is needed because many parishes have been living beyond their means, with nearly 25 percent of the 213 parishes currently being monitored by the archdiocese due to serious debt and budget issues.

The number of pastors in the archdiocese is also expected to decline over the next decade. There are currently 302 priests and 182 are eligible to be pastors, according to the archdiocese. In 10 years, that number is projected to decline greatly. In addition, close to 25 percent of parishes are already in a cluster relationship, which means one priest serves at more than one church worship service.

Catholics make up the largest denomination in the Twin Cities, and their numbers in the archdiocese have steadily grown over the past two decades to nearly 800,000 within a 12-county area, growth primarily fueled by immigration. Over the past 10 years, 100,000 new members have joined the archdiocese. As part of that growth, more urban parishes have shrunk as those in immigrant-heavy communities and some suburbs have grown. In many parishes, nearly 32 percent of weekend masses are less than a third full, archdiocese officials say.

Of the archdiocese's 98 schools, close to 20 percent receive subsidies from the archdiocese, and there are approximately 20 percent more seats than students.

A nationwide phenomenon

Dioceses in other major metropolitan areas -- including New York City, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Newark, N.J., and Cleveland -- have also gone through similar reorganizations in recent years as they deal with priest shortages, slimmer budgets, shifting demographics and, in some cases, financial losses brought on by sex abuse lawsuits.

Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, said churches in urban areas have had to close partly because parishioners have moved to the suburbs and other areas of the country, and the church structures they leave behind are often huge and expensive to maintain.

The practical reasons behind restructuring, however, don't always keep parishioners from feeling immense sadness at the changes, namely because they're so personally invested in the church community, Roberts said. Significant milestones like baptisms, marriages and funerals are held in churches, and parishioners become very attached to their parishes.

"Parishioners often use severe terms in describing what it feels like to them when their parishes close or they have to go to another community," Roberts said. "It really is a wound in the community.

"I think the community anxiety is if we're going to be asked to give up our parish or realign ourselves, what will it be like in 10 years? Are we going to have to do this again in 10 years? What planning are the bishops doing beyond just rearranging the local scenario as a sort of stop-gap? How, in the long range, do they see the church sustaining itself as a meaningful and powerful presence in the community?" StarTribune



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