A slumping economy and population declines have impacted every facet of life around Buffalo, N.Y., over the last several decades as industry began to wane along Lake Erie’s shore. Many businesses, schools and banks closed or merged. Mass attendance, Catholic school enrollment and baptisms declined.
In 2005, the Diocese of Buffalo decided to address the challenges facing the local church through a comprehensive plan.
In the same year, the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., began its own planning process. Its population was shifting across the diocese from city centers to the suburbs and other areas — a trend that became more pronounced after General Motors announced plans in 2005 to close a Flint-based plant in 2009.
Nine parishes in Flint alone were nearly empty on weekends, said the diocese’s pastoral planning director, Dominican Sister Rita Wenzlick.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis drew from the collaborative examples of these and other U.S. dioceses as it prepared for its own planning process, said Jim Lundholm-Eades, a member of the 16-member Strategic Planning Task Force that made recommendations to Archbishop John Nienstedt in July.
An archdiocesan team spent seven years before the planning process launch researching best practices in comprehensive diocesan planning as well as learning from dioceses whose processes were unsuccessful, Lundholm-Eades said.
Like the archdiocese, both the Lansing and Buffalo dioceses had new demographic realities, inefficiently used resources and fewer priests to minister in their parishes. The Diocese of Buffalo has a similar Catholic population to the archdiocese of approximately 650,000 Catholics. The Diocese of Lansing has about 217,000 Catholics.
Leaders in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis appreciated the structure of the Lansing and Buffalo dioceses’ process, said Lundholm-Eades. Both dioceses were addressing demographic changes, both provided a variety of ways for Catholics to share their concerns and ideas, and both implemented their plans on a cascading timeline.
Other dioceses, including Metuchen, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Cleveland, Ohio, were models in addressing the needs of new immigrant populations. The archdiocese looked to the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., for good examples of data analysis and finding solutions to regional challenges.
The archdiocese launched its planning initiative in February 2009. About 80 percent of U.S. dioceses have undergone some form of comprehensive restructuring in the past 10 years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Dioceses that restructure point to the same challenges: changing demographics, fewer numbers of active priests to serve the parishes and inefficient use of resources among parishes and schools.
“The main goal of the [planning] process is to foster a revitalized and sustainable local Church, one that is responsive to the pastoral needs of all our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in a video about the planning process in May.
The archbishop will announce the Plan for Parishes through materials that will be provided at weekend Masses Oct. 16-17.
An empty steel plant south of Buffalo, N.Y., could be the symbol for a declining region. Once home to Bethlehem-Lackwanna steel, the world’s largest steel-making operation during World War II, the plant closed most of its operations by 1983.
At the peak of its production, the plant had employed almost 300,000 people, most of whom worked in ship building, a trade fueled by adjacent Lake Erie. As Buffalo lost its steel plant and other industries, the region’s population declined. Today, Buffalo has half the population it did in 1950. The city has lost 11 percent of its population since 1990 alone. People have moved out of the region to look for jobs and education elsewhere.
In contrast, the population of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is growing, largely due to an influx of Latino immigrants, many of whom are Catholic. By 2016 the number of Catholics registered at parishes will be approximately 695,000. At the same time, the number of priests able to pastor a parish is declining. Yet, many Catholic parishes and schools are not located in areas where growth is strongest.
In the Diocese of Buffalo, Catholics expressed mixed reactions to the plan’s 2008 announcement, said its director of research and planning, St. Mary Sister Regina Murphy, SSMN.
Buffalo’s plan reduced the diocese’s 274 parishes and oratories to 176 through mergers. As a result, 81 church sites closed. The diocese also encouraged all parishes to collaborate better with one another.
The diocese had always had a disproportionate number of parishes to Catholics, Sister Regina said. “It was way beyond what we really needed.
We were overbuilt seriously,” she said.
Different immigrant groups built national parishes, sometimes right next to each other. In Le Roy, N.Y., one could walk down the driveway of St. Peter, the Irish parish, into the front door of the Italian parish, St. Joseph. Sometimes, immigrants from different regions of a country, such as Poland, would build churches within the same town.
“You could have eight churches concentrated in a 20-bock area,” Sister Regina said.
Responding to the region
Over the past several decades, the region’s Catholic population declined faster than the rest of the population, Sister Regina said. Many people moved to the city for jobs. In 1970, the Diocese of Buffalo hit its population peak of 935,000 Catholics. In 2009, it recorded about 656,000 Catholics.
And those are people who self-identify as Catholic, Sister Regina added — it doesn’t mean they attend Mass regularly or contribute to parish life.
The Diocese of Buffalo tried to make the strategic plan as “grassroots” as possible, Sister Regina said. In the end, some people were still upset with the changes, but most understood they were necessary.
“Change is something that human beings are not comfortable with,” she said. “And when you’re changing their churches, which is affecting their emotional self, their spiritual being, then you have a very negative reaction.”
Those preparing the plan tried to show care and compassion in their communication about it, she said.
The Diocese of Lansing took a similar approach and asked its 97 parishes to start the planning process with a self-assessment, which they shared with their neighboring parishes. When the plan is fully implemented, the diocese will have 81 parishes. Six parishes will have closed church buildings. Ten parishes will merge, 27 will cluster and five former parishes will be designated “chapels.”
Parish leaders in the archdiocese expect some Catholics to be upset by the changes the plan will bring, but they hope Catholics will embrace the plan with open minds and look to the future.
Yet, change is “painful, it’s very hard,” Sister Rita acknowledged. However, people understood why the strategic planning was necessary.
“We’re going to become better stewards of our resources,” she added. “The emergence of these new communities have brought new life, excitement, and the willingness to stay the course in figuring out what needs to be done to serve the needs of these newly formed communities in the time of economic downturn.”
Part of the new parish communities’ challenge is to build hope among their members, she said.
For Lansing, the plan is never complete, she said. The diocese and state faces an uncertain economic future, and the plan may have to be re-evaluated in the future.
In Buffalo, Sister Regina is pleased with the results of the plan, she said. It achieved its goal of consolidating resources, she said.
“We have accomplished basically what we set out to do, maybe better than we even expected,” she said.
Old churches, new uses
In the dioceses of Lansing, Mich., and Buffalo, N.Y., strategic planning has included closing church buildings. In the Lansing diocese, six churches will close at the end of the plan’s implementation; in the Buffalo diocese, 81 church sites closed. For some of these old churches, their closure has meant new life.
In the Lansing diocese, the churches were sold to other Christian denominations. The Buffalo diocese also sold churches to other Christian groups, as well as Muslim and Buddhist communities.
So far, the Buffalo diocese has sold about 45 church sites, many of which were small, country churches. Some of the buyers have imaginative plans for the buildings’ futures, said the Buffalo diocese’s director of research and planning Sister Regina Murphy, SSMN.
“You wouldn’t believe what they have been sold as,” she said.
Envisioned new uses include a bed and breakfast, artists’ studio and media business. One potential buyer hopes to turn an old church in Niagara Falls into a chocolate museum.
Preservation by relocation
St. Gerard church in Buffalo was sold to Mary Our Queen parish in Norcross, Ga., in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Instead of building a new church for its growing community, Mary Our Queen plans to dismantle St. Gerard’s Romanesque-revival building, move it to Norcross, and reassemble it for its own use.
“We’re calling that ‘preservation by relocation,’” Sister Regina said.
In both Lansing and Buffalo, legal provisions protect the land from being used for purposes contrary to Catholic ethics.
The closing and repurposing of Catholic church buildings has stirred concern and resistance among Buffalo-area historic preservationists, Sister Regina said.
Yet, because church upkeep doesn’t receive financial assistance outside of a parish, the Buffalo diocese is grateful others are buying the large churches, she said.
St. Gerard parishioners are supportive of their building’s move. “They know what would happen. It’s in a totally run down area of the city. They’re just thrilled that this church is going to be taken stone-by-stone, literally, down to Norcross, Ga., and rebuilt,” Sister Regina said. The Catholic Spirit