Why Churches Close: The Reality of Religious Decline

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Catholics from around the Pittsburgh area came together to celebrate the final mass of St. John Vianney parish in Allentown. At the end of the emotional reunion of family, friends and classmates, presider Rev. Michael J. Stumpf invited patrons to kiss the church’s altar, as they had seen clergy do countless times before.

“You have watched priests at the beginning of mass reverence the altar by coming forward and kissing the altar. For the next 5-10 minutes or so, we’re going to invite you to do the same,” he said.

Generations of St. John Vianney members approached the altar together to say goodbye.

Fathers with sons now grown joined one another to send off the church they were raised in. Mothers and daughters helped weeping grandmothers climb the altar steps to give their lifelong parish a proper farewell.

Even the acolyte, a young girl, couldn’t hold back the tears as she watched the crowd grace her church’s altar in St. John Vianney’s final service.

This parish is another casualty in what many within the Catholic community consider to be a regression of religion. The Diocese of Pittsburgh is unable to sustain some of its older churches which are serving a dwindling number of congregants each year.

In a show of support, hundreds of people turned up to the final mass at St. John Vianney. It was standing-room-only; parish members embraced one another at the bittersweet reunion, while other attendants had come from churches around the Diocese.

“What I want to know is where were all these people when the church wasn’t closing?” one attendant commented.

The mass began with a procession led by the Knights of Columbus, followed by Rev. Stumpf, who served as the parish’s administrator.

The mass was dedicated to St. John Vianney parish, its history and those who dedicated themselves to its preservation. The Prayer of the Faithful asked for reprieve for the church’s members who felt understandably resentful.

“For those who are still conflicted after the decision to close St. John Vianney, for the healing and reconciliation of any words spoken in anger or frustration during this time of discernment for this community’s future, and for any relationships that remain broken or strained, we pray to the Lord.”

Next, a prayer was offered for the many churches who’ve been through similar situations over the past several years.

“For other parishes, schools and institutions throughout the country facing significant changes and transitions, that the love and solidarity of all Catholics may overcome all fear and sadness, we pray to the Lord.”

A few parishioners stayed behind after mass to soak in the last sights of what they’d called home for decades.

“It was a great send-off,” said Mary-Ann Taylor, who graduated from the parish’s school.

Steve Wozny, who had been a part of the church since it first opened, understood the situation despite the pain.

“It hurts, you know, but what are you gonna do?” he asked.

The building, formerly known as St. George Church, was in need of repairs, including fixing a crumbling ceiling and water damage. On top of this, the surrounding area experienced a 27 percent decrease in population, and church membership had fallen by 77 percent, according to the Diocese of Pittsburgh website.

On top of declining attendance, St. John Vianney was $3 million in debt and in need what the Diocese estimated to be more than $1 million in repairs. In August of 2015, Bishop David Zubik and former St. John Vianney pastor Rev. Thomas R. Wilson petitioned to close the parish.

A Hope for the Future

However, there is hope for the future of the church building. A number of congregants formed the St. George Preservation Society, a group dedicated to the building’s restoration. The group is named after the church’s title prior to being combined with four other parishes in 2005.

Bob Kress is the president of the Preservation Society, and was optimistic following the service.

“We’re sad the church is closing, but it’s not necessarily a closing mass,” he said.

Kress and his group are in the process of appealing Bishop David Zubick’s decision to close the church.

When a bishop decrees that a parish close, its parishioners can appeal that decision at the diocesan level. If that fails, a parish can take its case to the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome, which is the stage that the Preservation Society is at right now.

It typically takes between six to 12 months for the Congregation for the Clergy to reach a decision. If that fails, the final step is to take the case to the Apostolic Signatura, essentially the Supreme Court of the Catholic Church.

“Right now, the church doesn’t want to share ownership with us, but we’re hoping Rome tells us something different,” Kress says.

Kress and his group hope that the Diocese will outsource the care of the building to them, and are looking for monthly donations from former members to sustain the church’s operating and repair costs.

Churches in the Pittsburgh Diocese are expected to be self-sustaining, and Kress says that until just recently, St. John Vianney had been receiving nearly 4 times its operational cost from the weekly collection basket.

However, although the church can certainly survive week-to-week, the biggest obstacle for the reopening of the church is the restorative cost. The church building is in disrepair, and estimates put the price of bringing the church back to a presentable state are in the six-figure range.

“There’s about 10 years of deferred maintenance that has had a bad effect on this church,” Kress said.

Right now, Kress says the society has a five-year plan in place totaling $600,000. The group has reached out to St. George alumni across the country, hosted fundraisers and established a presence on social media to get the word out about their cause.

The Preservation Society is also hosting a GoFundMe page, which is asking for $90,000. Right now, “Save St. George Church” only has about $5,700, but Kress says the group has approximately $70,000 in pledged donations over the next several years.

“If we can get 500 people to send us $10 a week, we’re done,” said Kress.

However, even if the group reaches its goal, the reopening of the parish is not guaranteed. Having the money helps the case in the appeals process, but the Vatican can still say no.

And not every former St. John Vianney parishioner is as optimistic as Kress. Alice Frankwitt, another lifelong member of the church, feels like the fate of her parish is out of her hands.

“What can you do about it?” she said. “I don’t think it (the Preservation Society) can do any good.”

However, others at the mass, including parishioner Mary-Ann Taylor and her mother, plan on supporting the society.

“We know we could make this happen,” Kress said. “But it’s this control issue with the Diocese, and they don’t want to share responsibility with us at this point.”

Kress believes that the Preservation Society knows the building the best, and can bring the church back to its most polished and cost-efficient state.

“There’s efficiencies we can take care of when you put your mind down to it,” he said. “And we’ll deal with those efficiencies.”

“Why Close a Church?”: Making the Diocesan Decision

St. John Vianney is part of a declining trend of church involvement in the Pittsburgh area. In the late 1980s, the Diocese of Pittsburgh had 323 parishes. Since the closure of St. John Vianney, that number is down to 199.

According to John Flaherty, director of the office for pastoral research and planning at the Diocese of Pittsburgh, there are four variables which determine whether or not a parish is liable to closure.

The first is the overall number of Catholics in a given area. The second factor is the number of contributing Catholics in that location, namely the percentage of Catholics that actively participate in and help fund a parish. Third is the state of the church building, and whether restoring it would be too heavy of a burden on the collective Diocese. And finally, a general decline in the number of clergy means smaller parishes must be sacrificed to sustain the larger ones. As older priests retire, there haven’t been enough new clergymen to replace them, and so the bishop must allocate priests conservatively.

Flaherty points out that often, money isn’t the primary factor determining if a church will close or not.

“We’ve had places where money itself wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that the congregation had shrunk so small and the bishop needed the priests to serve elsewhere,” he said. “For the bishop, it (money) isn’t the first, it’s, ‘Are the people receiving the care that they need?’ which involves the distribution of priests.”

It’s expected that every parish be financially self-sustaining, although there is a program in place where parishes that come up short can borrow money from other churches. But in terms of aid from the Diocese, it can only provide so much relief.

“The money that Bishop Zubik actually has control over is very limited,” Flaherty said. “He has very little discretionary money available to him. So even if he wanted to, he doesn’t have any resources to provide funds to parishes. So they have to be self-sustaining, and if they’re not self-sustaining, that’s when something has to change.”

To combat this decline, last April Zubik launched, “On Mission for the Church Alive!”. The program’s purpose is, “to foster viable, sustainable, and vibrant parishes and schools that support the mission of Jesus Christ and His Church,” according to its website. The organization studies this precipitous decline in American religious worship, and looks to inspire others to become clergy, stating that at this rate, in five years the Diocese of Pittsburgh will have more churches than priests.

Apart from financial constraints and a lack of clergy, Flaherty believes these problems are symptoms of a larger disease.

“The bigger issue is that people have lost a sense of their commitment to and practice of the faith. And that’s why Bishop has been very clear that On Mission is not nearly as much about restructuring, and that it’s ultimately about reinvigorating the church’s activities,” he said.

“You could say that things aren’t working financially, and that’s true, but you’d also say that things aren’t working religiously, so we as the church aren’t doing something right when it comes to passing on the faith.

There is precedence for this kind of massive reevaluation within the Diocese. During his time as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Cardinal Donald Wuerl launched what was called the, “Parish Reorganization and Revitalization Project” which either consolidated or closed 155 parishes from 1994-1996. Two-thirds of all church suppressions in the Diocese’s history occurred during those three years.

According to Flaherty, Pittsburgh’s socioeconomic situation at that time was not dissimilar from the one it’s currently in.

“The Diocese of Pittsburgh had come out of the 70’s and 80’s and faced the dramatic changes and economic realities of Southwestern Pennsylvania,” he said.

The Diocese found itself with more parishes than it needed, and so several churches were combined into one. Prior to Wuerl’s restructuring, South Side contained seven churches which served 24,000 people. By 1990, that number dropped to 6,000, and those seven parishes were combined into one: Prince of Peace church.

This same phenomenon also saw the effective end of ethnic parishes. In the early 1990s, one-third of Pittsburgh parishes were still considered to be ethnic. But as more young people left the area to find jobs, Polish, Italian and Slovakian churches began to fade.

“As that ethnic identity began to weaken over time as neighborhoods changed and people moved away, there was no longer a reason to continue that ethnic parish,” Flaherty said. “And that’s a case where money isn’t always the issue. In many cases, many of those ethnic parishes were very financially solvent. The issue was there just weren’t any people.”

However, Flaherty is optimistic and emphasizes that when churches close, multiple churches are being consolidated to create a brand new one. On top of that, entirely new churches are being built in Franklin Township and Richland Township, due to their population growth.

Even still, he maintains that Zubik’s revitalization of the Church in Pittsburgh is a systemic overhaul, and will go further than just the construction and destruction of churches.

“We need to look at how we’re carrying out our mission, even beyond the buildings in which we pray and teach. And that’s really the bigger challenge the bishop has called us to. And as you can imagine, it’s a much longer-term activity than just closing parishes and closing church buildings.”

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