Monday, June 23, 2008

More "Grand Closing"

Continuing a series of extensive parish reconfiguration and downsizing efforts in response to the changed landscape of Stateside Catholicism's onetime Northeastern flagship, the 400,000-member diocese of Albany's preparing to move on a "monumental restructuring" of its 167 parishes:
The 14-county diocese, faced with fewer priests and urban flight, has clustered parishes into local planning groups that must make recommendations to the diocese by June 30 on how to collaborate on programs and consolidate parishes.

In an interview Friday, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard praised the project as a "grassroots" effort that involved 167 parishes laboring to revitalize the church. But some who participated are frustrated. With black humor, local Catholics have compared the process to the TV show "Survivor" and referred to it as "Called to Be Closed."

Hubbard, recalling his own days as a street priest in Albany's South End, stressed that the church's commitment to inner cities would survive even if all its buildings in them do not. The bishop refused to speculate on how many churches may close. He is not expected to announce any final decisions until January.

"I can assure you that I have no preordained plans sitting in my desk here," said Hubbard, 69, whose home parish of St. Patrick's in Troy may close. "I'm not a masochist. I wouldn't put people through all of this expenditure of time, energy and emotional angst if I already knew what my decision was."

But the potential scale of the closures emerged in visits to more than 10 churches and interviews with more than two dozen priests, parishioners and local planning officials. Tentative recommendations that the Times Union was able to confirm called for closing or merging at least six parishes in Albany, three in Schenectady and three in Cohoes.

In the coming year, the diocese will also look at the question of schools connected to churches affected by the restructuring. There have been times in the past where parishes closed but schools did not.

The urban contraction afoot here reflects national Catholic demographics. European Catholics flooded America in great immigration waves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They flocked to ethnic enclaves in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, worshipping in such force that some churches drew 800 people at each of five Sunday Masses....

Communities shrank as their members did what immigrants do: worked hard and moved up.

The U.S. Catholic population is much more diffuse today after decades of migration from cities to suburbs and exurbs and from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. The flight of employers has also drained urban pews. Mass attendance has declined.

You see the results across upstate. Buffalo has closed or merged 77 parishes, Rochester 26, and Syracuse, 35.

One researcher compared the closings to deferred maintenance. Closing can feel like a death to parishioners, and bishops will avoid doing it if possible, said Mary Gautier of the Georgetown University-affiliated Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

But bishops are forced to make hard decisions once they don't have enough priests to go around. They feel pressure to build in the suburbs and they're still subsidizing inner-city parishes that lack sufficient parishioners, Gautier said.

The tragedy of the closures is that high demand exists for new churches in the South and West.

"It would be so great if we had this giant sky hook where we could take some of those beautiful parishes and just plunk them down in other places where they need them so badly," Gautier said.
In the last decade, more than 900 parishes have shut their doors in over 40 American dioceses.