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When a Catholic church shutters, what happens to its cemetery?

Natasha Lindstrom
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Matteo Valles of Bethel Park visits the grave site of his parents Leonardo and Pasqualina Valles at St. John Vianney Cemetery off Brownsville Road, Friday, June 2, 2017.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
St. John Vianney Cemetery off Brownsville Road, Friday, June 2, 2017.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Roman Catholic Polish Cemetary of the Transfigurant in Mt. Pleasant Township, on Friday, June 02, 2017.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Roman Catholic Polish Cemetary of the Transfigurant in Mt. Pleasant Township, on Friday, June 02, 2017.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Roman Catholic Polish Cemetary of the Transfigurant in Mt. Pleasant Township, on Friday, June 02, 2017.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Roman Catholic Polish Cemetary of the Transfigurant in Mt. Pleasant Township, on Friday, June 02, 2017.
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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The Roman Catholic Polish Cemetary of the Transfigurant in Mt. Pleasant Township, on Friday, June 02, 2017.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Three CH46 transport helicopters pass overhead Saturday, June 6, 2015, before the start of the funeral for Marine Corps Sgt. John McLaughlin, who was killed in the Korean War in 1950. McLaughlin was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Hazelwood.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is preparing to undergo its biggest restructuring in decades, with an untold number of church buildings to shutter as parishes downsize, shift territories and merge with neighboring communities over the next five years.

But as a spate of churches and schools go dark — their doors boarded up, holy relics removed and land parcels put on the market — more than 100 sacred properties will remain that cannot be relocated or abandoned: Western Pennsylvania’s Catholic cemeteries.

“The challenge for Pittsburgh — and the challenge for any diocese or archdiocese in the United States — is that Catholic cemeteries are consecrated grounds and part of a sacred trust that the Catholic church has made with all of the families and relatives,” said Steve Bittner, president of the Catholic Cemetery Conference, an Illinois-based cemetery advocacy group.

“When they decide to close a church that is affiliated or in very close proximity to that parish, they may be able to sell the church building, eventually,” said Bittner, “but that cemetery is going to have to be cared for, in theory, in perpetuity.”

A total of 116 cemeteries have been under the care of 78 parishes in the Pittsburgh diocese’s six-county territory.

Diocesan leaders are moving on a plan to ensure their long-term upkeep and survival.

By the end of the year, cemetery management will be transferred away from parishes and to a newly established nonprofit corporation, the Catholic Parish Cemeteries Association, or CPCA.

“This is an assurance that the church, in the widest sense, will take care of their beloved dead who are buried in our cemeteries,” said the Rev. Frank Almade, pastor of four parishes in New Castle. “That’s going to continue regardless of which church building stays open and which church building is closed.”

Once the transition is completed, parishes will retain ownership of cemetery grounds, but the nonprofit will handle their upkeep, operations and funding.

“Not only will it help to provide better care for the cemeteries, it will free up even more time for the clergy to focus on ministry,” said the Rev. Stephen Kresak at Holy Apostles Parish in Pittsburgh.

Marianne Linn, the nonprofit association’s inaugural director, said the move “will relieve parishes from the challenges that parish cemeteries present while maintaining a high quality of care for the deceased and their families.”

She noted that cemeteries will further benefit from her staff’s expertise and ability to purchase supplies such as vehicles, landscaping tools and grass seed in bulk volumes.

“All cemetery deeds will be honored,” added Linn, “and the names of the cemeteries will not change.”

Formed in December, the CPCA already has taken over management of 20 cemeteries in Greene and Washington counties, Linn said. It’s in the works of taking over the care of 33 cemeteries in Lawrence, Butler and Beaver counties.

The goal is to transition the remaining 63 parish-run cemeteries in Allegheny County by January.

Off-loading cemetery duties was a welcome relief for pastors such as Almade, who’d been juggling his ministerial work across four parishes while helping a longtime janitor and part-time parish secretary oversee three cemeteries. He was happy to hand over the cemetery records last month.

“It’s off my hands,” said Almade, who called the shift to a centralized operation “a very, very good idea because it brings professionalism and the kinds of care that we all want but sometimes are not able to give.

“When I, as a pastor, looked at all the things I had to do, administrating and caring for the cemetery was not nearly top of the list,” Almade said. “It’s easy to sometimes not pay the attention I might need to who’s cutting the grass.”

Parish-managed cemeteries are still by far the norm across most of the United States, according to Bittner.

Greensburg Diocese

The Diocese of Greensburg, which spans four counties, has 82 cemeteries associated with 78 parishes. All are run by parishes, with no plans to change the management structure, diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.

Among the largest: Greensburg Catholic Cemetery in Hempfield, where more than 14,000 people are in grave plots or the mausoleum and two office administrators and one full-time groundskeeper maintain the property. The Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Irwin, home to about 10,500 resting places, requires a full-time manager and three part-time maintenance workers.

The Greensburg Diocese further has no imminent plans for a slew of church building closures, having already undergone two reorganizations in the past several years.

Prior closures and mergers in Greensburg’s territory have led to some parishes taking on multiple cemeteries, Zufelt said. St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fayette County, for instance, became responsible for six cemeteries following a merger of several parishes in 2013.

Under the latest plan to overhaul the Pittsburgh diocese unveiled by Bishop David Zubik last month , 188 parishes would consolidate into 49 proposed parish groupings over the next five years as part of a broader initiative called “On Mission for the Church Alive!”

And if the proposed groupings stick, there could be several cases of one parish being responsible for six or more cemeteries — a potentially problematic result that helped spur the idea for forming the CPCA nonprofit.

The primary purpose wasn’t to save money, according to Linn, but an added benefit will be that cash-strapped parishes no longer will have to pull from other pots of funds to subsidize cemeteries that are not proving profitable. Diocesan officials declined to provide financial details

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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