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Spotlight Report

Many parishes seem closure candidates

O'Malley to weigh attendance, activity

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/10/2003

 Chart
Archdiocese parishes with rankings by size and activity

 To stay or close
These are the criteria used over the last decade by the Archdiocese of Boston to determine whether a parish should be closed or merged:

  • Number of registered parishioners.
  • Number of parishes in the city or town.
  • Distance between parishes.
  • Ethnic or linguistic need.
  • Sunday Mass attendance.
  • Number of baptisms, funerals, and marriages.
  • Enrollment in religious education classes.
  • Existence and vitality of parish elementary school.
  • Physical condition of church and parish buildings.
  • Financial health of parish.
  • Size of church building.
  • Trends in sacramental activity.
  • Need for clergy to serve area hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, and prisons.

  • Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley is expected to add other criteria for use in determining future parish closings, which he has not yet publicly described.

     The Boston Archdiocese
    Facts and figures

    The city of Lawrence boasts seven Catholic parishes, five of which serve ethnic groups most of whose members have long since moved away.

    In Newton, a city that most church officials think can support two or three Catholic parishes, there are seven, four of which bury more people than they baptize.

    And in Boston, where neighborhoods such as Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston are packed with parishes, numerous church buildings are in disrepair, and some are nearly empty. Two weeks ago, only 55 people showed up for Sunday Mass at St. Monica's, a proud South Boston parish that has served generations of mostly low-income Catholics.

    The Archdiocese of Boston has cut the number of its parishes from 402 to 357 over the last two decades, but church officials say it wasn't enough. There are still far more parishes than there are worshipers, priests, or money to sustain them.

    Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, in what may well be will be the biggest challenge to his resolve and his popularity since his installation July 30, is preparing to begin the process of closing dozens of parishes in Eastern Massachusetts next month.

    Deciding which parishes must go is sure to be painful, even though many laypeople and priests acknowledge that it is inevitable. In the past, parishioners have picketed, protested, and appealed to the Vatican in vain efforts to prevent parish closings.

    "Faith is the most cherished reality for most sincere Catholics, and changes that have to do with the practice of their faith can hit very deep," said the Rev. Paul B. O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Lawrence. "For many Catholics, some of the most important moments in their lives have taken place in church, be it baptisms, first communions, weddings, or funerals."

    By some of the church's own measures, a large fraction of the archdiocese's parishes should be considered for closure.

    Nearly one-third of the archdiocese's churches celebrate baptisms, funerals, and marriages for 100 or fewer people each year, making them candidates for consolidation under one measure the archdiocese has used to assess parish viability. People who have spoken with the archbishop expect him to close at least 50 churches, including many of the national parishes that were established to serve particular language groups, and some city parishes with older buildings and small congregations.

    O'Malley has declined to speak about parish closings with the secular media, but in a recent interview with Zenit, a Catholic news agency, he said "it is urgent to reconfigure the parishes."

    "In dioceses of the Northeastern United States, such as ours, there are two or three churches in each neighborhood of a city, but few outside," he said. "Those small churches have lost many faithful and it is hard for them to remain standing, as more efforts are needed in the suburban belt. Therefore, we have to regroup some parishes to redistribute resources better."

    O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, says the archbishop has not decided how many parishes, or which ones, should be closed; those decisions will be made through a process that will involve priests and laypeople. But Coyne said O'Malley plans to publicly describe why parish closings are necessary and how he wants the process to work after he addresses archdiocesan priests next Tuesday.

    Coyne said the church will adhere to the traditional process for determining parish viability, which looks at a variety of measures of parish health, including the number of registered parishioners, the attendance at Sunday Mass, the number of baptisms, funerals, and marriages performed, the enrollment in religious education classes, the existence and vitality of a parish school, the physicial condition of parish buildings, and parish finances. But Coyne said O'Malley will add other factors, including whether the church serves a particular immigrant group.

    "At this point, it's too soon to predict what will happen, other than to say that some parishes one might assume would be closed may not be, and some parishes some assume would never be closed may be," Coyne said.

    Even though the Catholic population of Eastern Massachusetts, as measured by the church, is at 2 million and growing, attendance at Mass has fallen dramatically. In the 1950s, an estimated 60 to 75 percent of Catholics nationally attended Mass at least weekly in the 1950s; today that figure is at about 35 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In Boston, the archdiocese's annual parish-by-parish head count, taken in October 2002, put weekly Mass attendance below 300,000.

    The number of priests has been plummeting, as well. The number of archdiocesan priests has dropped from 1,197 in 1984 to 887 this year, of whom 332 are retired, sick, or absent. That makes it increasingly difficult for the archdiocese to offer sacraments at all of its parishes.

    Many of the archdiocese's churches are located in places where early generations of Irish and Italian Catholics lived -- older cities and suburbs, such as Boston and Newton -- and some of those churches had been specifically designated to serve earlier generations of immigrants in their languages, such as French, German, Lithuanian, and Polish.

    But as Catholics in Boston have become more affluent, many have moved to outlying suburbs. New generations of Catholic immigrants who populate the region's central cities speak a different array of languages, such as Spanish, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole, and worship, often in those languages, at parish churches, not at specially-designated national parishes.

    As a result, the archdiocese now finds it has empty churches in numerous older neighborhoods, such as South Boston, and overflowing churches in booming suburbs, such as Franklin.

    Making matters worse, many of the churches in the older cities and suburbs are in disrepair, and their congregations cannot afford to fix them. Church officials have said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to repair all its aging parish buildings. Parishes are generally responsible for maintaining their buildings, but in the past the archdiocese has tried to help those that can't afford to do so.

    Cardinal Bernard Law saw those same problems and tried to address them by closing parishes, starting in his very first year as archbishop, 1984. But the archdiocese's financial situation has worsened considerably as a result of the down economy and the abuse crisis, and the archdiocese can no longer afford to support as many parishes as it once did.

    Church officials also hope that closing parishes ultimately will lead to a healthier archdiocese, as numerous weak parishes are replaced with fewer but more vibrant church communities.

    Parishes that have weak attendance and low numbers of sacraments are considered possible candidates for closing, especially if they are located near other parishes and can be merged. The archdiocese has in the past said that any church whose sacramental index -- a sum of the number of baptisms, funerals, and twice the number marriages per year -- is 100 or fewer should be considered for consolidation. By that measure, 114 of the archdiocese's 357 parishes should be considered.

    But O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who has committed his life to serving the poor, has also made it clear to numerous people that he does not want low-income people or immigrants to bear the sole burden of parish closings. As a result, church observers expect to see a mix of urban and suburban parishes closed.

    Despite the archdiocese's financial woes, officials say that the resale value of church property would never be a factor in deciding whether to close a parish.

    Among the communities that are considered by priests to be targets for parish closings are the Boston neighborhoods of Charlestown, Dorchester, and South Boston and the cities of Brockton, Cambridge, Lawrence, Lowell, Newton, Quincy, and Salem. The archdiocese is expected to consider merging some small parishes in suburbs where the Catholic population is not growing, such as in the Carlisle-Concord-Lincoln area.

    Parish closings are taking place throughout older dioceses in the United States, particularly in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, following a shift in the Catholic population, according to Mary L. Gautier, senior research associate at CARA at Georgetown University. The number of parishes in the United States peaked around 1995 at 19,331 and now stands at 19,081, according to the research group.

    "Catholics have moved to where the jobs are, so you see a lot of growth in the South and the West and suburbs, where there wasn't a traditional Catholic immigrant population," Gautier said. "If we could only pick up those big beautiful churches and move them, because Dallas could really use some of those old buildings in Boston."

    Even before O'Malley outlines his plans, many Catholics are apprehensive.

    "Is attendance down? Yes. But still, churches are not just bricks and mortar -- they have sentimental value and religious value," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. "We all watch our bottom line, but there has to be some sensitivity for the attachment to those churches. You can't just close this church and that church."

    Despite those emotions, church specialists say they expect most Catholics will ultimately accept the need for church closings. Many priests interviewed over the last several weeks expressed support for O'Malley's plan to close parishes.

    "In the long run, people will appreciate that there is no alternative," said Thomas H. O'Connor, university historian at Boston College. "Anybody who goes to church can see what's happening. How many people do you see in the pews? You can see the collection plate going down, and the same priest Sunday after Sunday, so although people will be sad, they'll be reconciled to the necessity of this being done."

    Globe correspondent Bill Dedman and Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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