Church closings, mergers mourned by worshippers, communities
Andrea Evans is in mourning.
The sacred space she valued as her place of refuge for six decades suddenly is off limits, its holy relics stripped away, doors bolted shut and almost 400 weekly worshippers told to go elsewhere. St. John Vianney church in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood closed this month, the latest in more than 150 Diocese of Pittsburgh church closures in three decades.
The Catholic church built by German immigrants, known as St. George Church for most of its 105 years, is where Evans, 64, made her First Communion, married her husband of 41 years and had her three children — now ages 30, 32 and 40 — baptized. She and her neighbors refer to the twin-steepled structure at the heart of their community as “the beacon on the hill.”
“It’s almost like a death in the family,” Evans said. “We’re all hurting and lost.”
Judy Hackel was not a member — she’s not even Catholic — but she, too, is lamenting the closure as a major setback to a neighborhood on the rebound. Hackel, vice president of Allentown Community Development Corp., contrasted the demise of St. John Vianney to a string of encouraging activity. She points to new tenants such as Breakfast at Shelly’s, Spool Fabric Shop and Industry on Industry, a small-business incubator, breathing renewed life into Allentown’s main drag of Warrington Avenue.
“When you lose something that large and that much involved with the community for so many years, it’s very disheartening to everyone,” said Hackel, “not just the parishioners.”
The closure of a church can have far-reaching effects on the residents and vitality of the area in which it goes dark.
Catholics and non-Catholics cite concerns over the potential ripple effects of church closures on their surrounding area’s economic development, participation in religious activity and availability of safety nets for the needy and vulnerable.
“It’s impossible to explain to people the devastation when your home church is closed,” said Laura Magone, 55, who lost her home church, St. Anthony in Monongahela, in 2014. She and a devoted group of a few dozen former parishioners continue to meet regularly at the local American Legion and in homes, using an email list and phone tree to coordinate prayer services, social events and community support during hardships.
Closures can affect a community’s historical ties and sense of identity.
“The church defines the skyline in the Allentown community,” said Bob Kress, spokesman for the St. George Preservation Society, a group formed in August in opposition to the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s plan to close St. John Vianney. “It’s a landmark and a centerpiece of the neighborhood.”
Critics of large-scale diocesan closure plans, including Catholic Church reform advocacy groups from around the world, say that too many bishops are turning off the lights and merging parishes as a quicker fix — and potential revenue-generator through property sales — than coming up with innovative ways to preserve faith communities.
Backlash to closures
Bishops are “merging active and vibrant parishes into anonymous and unmanageable superstructures,” said a May letter to Pope Francis signed by the leaders of 24 international reform groups who met last summer in Ireland. They decried the increasingly common approach of responding to the priest shortage by clustering Catholic congregations into so-called “mega-parishes.”
“The institutional church has its ears closed,” said Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, a Washington-based group that advocates Catholic reforms such as ordaining women as priests.
Diocesan leaders say they have no choice but to restructure — including the likes of closures, mergers and more roving priests assigned to multiple parishes — to cope with population shifts, changing demographics and the bleak fiscal outlooks of many parishes. Almost half of 200 parishes in the Pittsburgh diocese’s six-county territory are losing money.
“We need to look honestly at the facts — our Catholic population, our aging clergy, our sacramental trends, our finances,” Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik wrote in an April 8 open letter to parishioners. “We need to look — parish by parish — at the condition of our buildings and facilities, our school enrollments and our projections for population trends five to 10 years from now just for starters.”
As old ethnic churches and churches in former mill towns dwindle in size and number, parishes in Pittsburgh suburbs such as Cranberry and Upper St. Clair are growing into 10,000-plus member congregations, buoyed by the flight of baby boomers who moved out of the city to raise their families.
“I understand the diminishing parishioners. Our children moved out to the suburbs and now their churches are booming, but there’s still all of us here — we’re still here,” said Evans of St. John Vianney’s displaced members. “We’ve all become family, and none of us want to break up.”
Shrinking Catholic presence
The Pittsburgh diocese, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties, serves a 3,750-square-mile area made up of 633,117 Catholics, or one-third of the zone’s total population. It last embarked on a major reorganization in 1989, and shrank from 310 parishes using 333 buildings to 218 parishes using 288 buildings by 1998, said John Flaherty, the diocese’s secretary for parish life.
Separately, through case-by-case evaluations, the diocese has closed 48 church buildings and established 10 parishes through mergers. Discussions about the possible merger of five parishes — St. Catherine of Siena and St. Pamphilus in Beechview, and Our Lady of Loreto, St. Pius X and Resurrection in Brookline — were tabled.
“I know your pain,” Zubik told St. John Vianney parishioners in a Jan. 23 letter affirming the dissolution of their parish. “I experienced the same more than 10 years ago when the building of St. Stanislaus Church in Ambridge closed. It was there that I received all the sacraments, celebrated my first Mass as a priest and one of my first Masses as a bishop.”
The 78 parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, which has 142,000 members across Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties, seem to be in better financial shape. That’s following two reorganizations in the past seven years that resulted in 16 parish closures and mergers involving eight.
Nationwide, more than 1,350 parishes have closed over the past decade; there are about 17,500 left, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, at Georgetown University.
After the final Sunday
Sometimes a church closure can bring positive change.
The Rev. Gail Cafferata, an Episcopal priest and researcher with Boston University’s Center for Practical Theology, cited many cases in which a new faith group is buoyed by ethnic churches that cater to today’s immigrants.
“That’s a benefit to the community,” said Cafferata, pointing to other examples of churches converting into homeless shelters or arts and community centers.
An endowment can be pumped into effective nonprofits that are helping to fill in the gaps in services once relegated to churches, such as food pantries, education, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, family support and outreach to the sick, elderly and poor.
A church such as St. John Vianney has no windfall to share; the diocese cited its $3 million in debt as among reasons for the closure. The diocese’s transition team managed to keep St. John Vianney’s weekly food pantry operating at Giving Heart, a nonprofit across the street.
“You want to make sure that people think about what’s going to happen the Sunday after the church closes,” Cafferata said.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.