When the Church Closes Shop


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Across the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is closing churches. In some cases appeals to the Vatican have resulted in the re-opening of the closed churches; but the trend is well-established and growing.

The big dioceses of course always get the headlines. I first started paying closer attention to the trend in the spring of 2004, when Boston’s Archbishop (he became Cardinal in 2006) Seán Patrick O’Malley announced, in what may be the largest loss of parishes by an American Catholic diocese at one time, that 65 of the archdiocese’s 357 parishes would close by the end of the year. Philadelphia made headlines in the spring of 2014 when the Archdiocese announced that 46 churches would be closed.

And now this summer, thousands of Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York are attending final liturgies in parishes Cardinal Timothy Dolan has set to close. The Archdiocese announced that 112 parishes will be merged into 55 larger new parishes. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for regular services, meaning those churches will be effectively closed by August. East Harlem, home to successive waves of Catholic immigrants for generations, is among the most affected neighborhoods. Three of its seven Catholic churches will be closed.

The reasons usually given for church closings are “demographic changes” and “the growing shortage of priests.”

“Demographic changes,”  of course, can mean a lot of things: parishes with older people, who cannot afford building maintenance; parishes with mostly low-income ethnic groups who cannot afford the costs of church upkeep; people moving from inner cities to the suburbs; and of course the growing number of people simply dropping out of the Roman Catholic Church. Finances are a big issue, often included under “demographic changes.” In New York City, Cardinal Dolan has to pay for the “restoration” or renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When announced in 2012, the restoration was projected to cost roughly $175 million and is to be finished in December 2015. Some conservative and wealthy Catholics, turned off by the anti-capitalist rhetoric of Pope Francis, have warned Cardinal Dolan that they are re-considering their contributions. Looking at the list of New York Archdiocese churches to be closed, one sees that there are nine in Manhattan. If the Archdiocese could sell those properties, I suspect there would be fewer headaches about paying for the refurbishing of St. Patrick’s. Just a thought.

“The growing shortage of priests,” is a big problem for sure. It could be solved tomorrow, actually, if some courageous bishops would begin to ordain already qualified men as priests. (I would suggest women as well, but our US bishops are not ready for that step. Some might be encouraged to ordain women deacons however.) Another solution of course would be to move in the direction of “intentional Eucharistic communities” in which non-ordained people preside at Eucharist. (My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, the Belgian “Dutch theologian” Edward Schillebeeckx, often said “there is no reason for a community to be without Eucharist.”)

Consolidating parishes is part of the trend. Some observers suggest that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is moving toward a parochial model of super-sized parishes, along the lines of the mega-churches. As symbolic of the change they point to the Diocese of Orange California, which purchased Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, now said to be able to accommodate 5,000 people, to be the new cathedral for the Diocese of Orange.

So what is happening in this parochial reconfiguration of the US Roman Catholic Church? Is a bigger parish necessarily better? To me the clarifying issue is understanding the church as a community of faith.

The church as a community of faith is not like a chain of supermarkets, where people come in, put their money in the box, get their religious product from an increasingly anonymous person, and stand in line to get communion — and then head home.

A vibrant – graced-filled and life-giving – church is like a neighborhood store, where people know each other, share concerns, and get not just a product but service with a knowing smile. Christian ministry.

It struck me as pastorally poignant (and pastorally irresponsible) that at least two of the churches being closed in the Archdiocese of New York are prime examples of what the church should be as a community of faith: the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony.

The Church of the Nativity, in New York City’s East Village, is a simple cinder block and brick building. Its parishioners are immigrants, working families, young professionals, poor people, and homeless people, who are welcomed inside the church for refuge. All parishioners consider it their spiritual home.

A hundred blocks, or so, north of Nativity, in a poor and mostly Hispanic neighborhood, one finds the Church of the Holy Agony. It ministers to East Harlem’s Roman Catholic, mainly Puerto Rican, community. This church is packed every Sunday.

Both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Agony have similar histories. They were established in the 1950’s and 1960’s to serve immigrant or non-English-speaking communities with money raised by their congregations not New York’s Archdiocese. Nativity has seen its numbers diminish a bit as the East Village gentrifies, while Holy Agony’s pews are filled for Eucharist every Sunday.

What I find most surprising – and most baffling – is that both of these Archdiocese of New York churches are active faith communities and financially solvent. They are still paying their own way and have little or no debt.

They may be very well-organized institutions; but supermarket churches leave me cold. We already live in an increasingly too impersonal world. I really prefer the smaller local neighborhood communities. They are personal and intimate. They have qualified leaders – whether ordained or lay – and they have a truly face-to-face pastoral presence. Aren’t they really more Christ-like?

When the church closes shop, it loses more than just an old building.

17 thoughts on “When the Church Closes Shop

  1. From St. Frances X. Cabrini church in Scituate, MA (Boston Archdiocese) thank you for this excellent exposition of what is occurring in the US. We are in vigil, 24/7 in our church to protect it from being sold off while we pursue Vatican appeals. http://stfrancesxcabriniscituate.org

    Ordinaries are taking self-sufficient, vibrant churches with active, charitable faith Communities to sell them off, as a friend says, “as their personal ATMs”. One would think they don’t recognize the true value of their Faithful.

  2. Jack, I didn’t know you studied under Edward Schillebeeckx. Wow! I like the idea of Intentional Eucharisti Communities as one, of many, approach. When Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am with them”, he didn’t say anything about whose permission was needed, the gender of any leaders, where they had to meet, etc. I think the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working hard, and we might pay attention to what is going on. From a selfish perspective I would enjoy easier weekends and less mileage on the car running from parish to parish to maintain schedules.

    • Jim, thanks for your comments. Intentional Eucharistic communities have history on their side. In the early church the presiders at Eucharist were not ordained…….and some of them were women! I always chickle whrn I hear a bishop proclaim that Jesus ordained the apostles at the Last Supper. Pure mythology…..

  3. I heard Joseph Campbell say that most religions consider the foundational stories of other traditions to be myths, while they consider their own to be absolutely true. Hmmm . . .

  4. I think the mis-appropriation of funds it getting a little too much to handle, especially with the now “poverty stricken” Franciscans due to “questionable financial activities”.
    No more top shelf spirits for them.

  5. With about 20% of the USA parishes (compared to the 1960s & 1970s) now merged or closed, why haven’t we heard about any DIOCESES within the 50 states being closed or merged??
    Seems that the Hierarchy is expanding while the people of God are contracting in numbers!!

  6. I remember in the mid-“80’s The Detroit Free Press had a 4-page insert of the 34 parishes being closed in Detroit. Unspoken but obviously due to the white flight to the suburbs since the 60’s. I was saddened to see my history going away: the church where I was baptized and made my first Communion, the one where I was confirmed, and my high school building and church.All the churches were being sold to black congregations. Now the losses are due to inability to maintain some of these churches. Megachurches are not appealing to me. AND re your comment about having plenty of men who are priests–my university-serving church in E Lansing had 7 parishioners who could no longer serve as priests, mainly because they left and married. There is indeed NO shortage of priests, just small-minded members of the hierarchy. Good essay, Jack.

  7. Jan, I’m currently a member of that East Lansing Student Center (no longer a parish). We were fully solvent and vibrant, and we were merged with a giant local church that was heavily in debt to the tune of close to a million dollars due to mismanagment. The bishop couldn’t let the largest church in the diocese fail – besides, the he uses it for his overflow ceremonies because the cathedral is too small. This happened seven or eight years ago, and we’re still recovering. I’m not sure we ever really will.

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