Monday, August 17, 2009

Archdiocese of Miami finalizes plans to close 13 churches (10% of its parishes)

For months, Bernadette Poitier has prayed alongside members of Overtown's St. Francis Xavier, hoping a miracle would spare her Catholic church from closing down.

But in a matter of weeks, her spiritual home of the last 30 years and one of South Florida's oldest churches will be no more as the Archdiocese of Miami continues to make severe financial cuts amid a recession in which it has lost millions of dollars.

``It's painful. It's not fair,'' said Poitier, 54. ``What are we doing for the poor?''

Thousands of Catholics across Miami-Dade and Broward counties, some on the verge of tears, listened Sunday as pastors read a letter by Archbishop John C. Favalora announcing plans for the rapid closure of 13 churches by Oct. 1.

``The archdiocese should have a larger parish in response to the demographic and economic changes which have happened over the years,'' Favalora wrote, calling the closures a ``difficult decision'' that he came to ``with much personal prayer and reflection.''

Many of the churches, which the archdiocese says have struggled to support themselves and in some cases have been loaned up to $1 million over the last decade, are located in poor, minority enclaves or serve elderly populations.

Two of those to close, St. Joseph in Pompano Beach and Divine Mercy in Fort Lauderdale, were established for the Haitian community, while the closing of St. Francis Xavier in Overtown and St. Philip Neri in Bunche Park, near Opa-locka, will leave only one historically black church remaining in the archdiocese..

Favalora has said that closing minority churches will increase the diversity of Catholic parishes that will take in their members, but some churchgoers are resisting that idea.

``He says he wants the black Catholics to move over to other parishes so we won't feel as though we're segregated. But we as black Catholics have our own culture and we should be able to express our own black culture in song and dance and the way we do the liturgy,'' said Dale Ambrose Deshazior, whose parents helped established St. Philip Neri in 1952.

Once their churches close, the archdiocese is asking St. Francis members to attend services at Gesu in downtown Miami and those at St. Philip to attend St. Monica in Miami Gardens. Yet, many members of both churches say they will instead join Holy Redeemer in Liberty City, the remaining historically black church.

``We certainly understand feelings of disappointment and anger,'' said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta. ``This has been the hardest financial decision.''

At Our Lady Aparecida, a 1,667-member Brazilian church with buildings in Hollywood and Pompano Beach, the mood was somber Sunday as the Rev. Volmar Scaravelli announced the news. Members will be asked to attend St. Vincent in Margate.

``Many live in that region of Margate and Coconut Creek. For some, it's a little inconvenient,'' Scaravelli said. ``For the group that lives in Pompano and doesn't drive because they don't have driver's licenses, we'll have a bus and a van to transport them.''

Since Favalora proposed the closures via letter in late May, Catholics have created websites, initiated letter-writing campaigns and gathered for prayer vigils in hope that churches would be spared.

``It didn't make any difference,'' said Janet Lijeron, 71, who attends St. Luke in Coconut Creek, which has many members in their 70s and 80s. ``It's like breaking up a home; like a death in the family.''

Members of St. Cecilia in Hialeah -- mostly low-income seniors -- had protested the church's proposed closure earlier this summer near the archdiocese's Miami Shores office. Agosta has said the church has $1.3 million in debt.

``Closing the church, especially for people of older age, people who can't drive and can't go to another church, that's like forgetting about them,'' said Ramon BolaƱos, who helped establish St. Cecilia in 1971. ``I don't know where I'll go now.''

Those at St. Charles Borromeo in Hallandale Beach were also saddened.

`We're all downcast. It's a challenge,'' said Julia Winters, 88. ``But we have to keep praying and remaining faithful.''

The church closures are the latest in a series of steep financial cuts in the archdiocese. Seven Catholic schools were shut down this year, while funding for the archdiocese's pro-life office, pregnancy care centers and a retreat center in Hollywood has also been cut. In addition, the archdiocese is selling its MorningStar retreat center in Pinecrest.

Closed churches could be rented to generate revenue for the archdiocese, which has 128 churches in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. That's the case with the closed Catholic schools, which will reopen in the fall as secular, publicly funded charters. In addition, St. Monica Catholic School, which closed in 2008, will reopen as a charter.

The Archdiocese of Miami is the latest of many Catholic dioceses around the country that have cut back in recent years. In one of the biggest cutbacks, the Diocese of Cleveland announced in March that it would close 52 of its 224 churches next year. Miami Herald

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