Painful Parish Consolidations in New York

The archdiocese will merge nearly a third of its 368 parishes, but the traditionalist Church of the Holy Innocents will remain open.

NEW YORK — Faced with changing demographics that are increasingly making it difficult to maintain centuries-old ethnic parishes in urban neighborhoods, the Archdiocese of New York announced on Nov. 2 that it will be merging 112 of its 368 parishes by next August.

As a result of the consolidation, the archdiocese will have 57 fewer parishes than it now has, an overall reduction of 15%, although in some of the mergers both existing churches will remain in service.

The archdiocese’s pastoral-reorganizational plan — known as “Making All Things New” — will affect churches in Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and the surrounding counties upstate. The mergers are expected to be completed over the next 10 months on a parish-by-parish basis, said Joseph Zwilling, the communications director for the Archdiocese of New York.

“Our goal was to create parishes that are even more alive, vibrant, stable and strong. We simply had too many parishes in some parts of the archdiocese,” Zwilling told the Register, noting that about 25% of the archdiocese’s parishes are in Manhattan, even though only 12% of the local Catholic population today lives in the city.

“We needed to make certain that our resources were being used properly and not going into propping up half-empty buildings,” Zwilling said, adding that the archdiocese has given $392 million to support parishes and Catholic schools over the last 10 years.

“God’s people tell us that money can and should be used for meeting the spiritual, educational and material needs of the people, not in maintaining buildings that are not needed anymore,” Zwilling said.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, wrote in his Oct. 30 column in Catholic New York that the archdiocese had “too many parishes” in areas that once had “huge” Catholic populations that have since moved away. Cardinal Dolan said the archdiocese could no longer staff all the urban parishes.

“Rectories built a century ago — now in disrepair — for six priests usually now house one or two,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.

But Cardinal Dolan acknowledged at the outset of his column, titled “Dying … and Rising,” that however necessary the mergers might be, they will inflict deep emotional pain on the parishioners who will lose beloved churches that some have attended faithfully for decades.

“Let me be candid: There will soon be a real sense of grief at some of our parishes as we get set to announce publicly what we’ve been preparing for the last five years, namely, the merging of some of our beloved parishes,” he wrote.

“In a few places, there might even be a feeling that something has died.”


Regional Trend

The downsizing in New York also has been seen in dioceses across the Northeast and Midwest, where generations of immigrant Catholics settled and built their own ethnic neighborhood parishes. In 1950, 46% of the U.S. Catholic population resided in the Northeast, and 30% was in the Midwest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

But over the last 50 years, many Catholics in those regions left their old urban neighborhoods for the suburbs at the same time as their share of the nation’s Catholic population declined sharply. Today, only 28% of U.S. Catholics live in the Northeast, and 23% are in the Midwest, according to CARA.

Meanwhile, more Catholics have stopped attending Mass and participating in parish life. Young, single people who live in urban neighborhoods also tend to be less churchgoing, at least until they marry, have children and begin attending Mass again with their families, said Mark Gray, a senior research associate at CARA.

In the last 50 years, the Archdiocese of New York has consolidated 42 parishes, including 21 parish closings in 2007. The adjacent Brooklyn Diocese, which also encompasses the borough of Queens, has closed 12 parishes since 2009.

According to CARA, the number of Catholic parishes in the United States peaked in 1988 at 19,705. Since then, the Church has lost 2,222 parishes. In 2013, 61 new parishes opened in the United States. In the same year, 190 parishes were shuttered.

“There are still more parish mergers and closures ahead as the dioceses continue to restructure,” Gray told the Register. As urban neighborhoods have changed, Gray said it often no longer makes sense to have two or three parishes within a short walking distance of one another.

“There are not enough people in the pews to justify the cost of maintaining the worship space,” Gray said. “Another factor you have to be concerned about is the fewer number of priests that there are for these parishes. When you have a situation where you have one priest responsible for two or three parishes, it becomes pretty demanding.”

The parish consolidations in the Northeast and Midwest are happening at the same time that the Catholic population elsewhere in the country is growing because of immigration from Mexico and Latin America.

“For every parish you close in the Northeast, you could open another in the South or the West, where there are not enough parishes,” Gray said.


Five-Year Process

The “Making All Things New” pastoral-planning process has encompassed almost five years of study and consultation between parishioners, priests, deacons and religious, as well as the archdiocesan pastoral council. Cardinal Dolan also offered observations from his own parish visits since his 2009 appointment as archbishop.

“This process has been exhaustive,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.

Based on the input received from the 368 parishes and 75 parish clusters, as well as the archdiocesan priests’ council, other advisers and a 40-person advisory committee of priests, religious and lay Catholics, Cardinal Dolan said he decided on merging some parishes while also asking that parishes coordinate with others in their clusters to provide services and ministries.

“The deans, priests’ council, pastoral council and college of consultors were all involved,” Cardinal Dolan wrote. “It all then came to me, and, along with my brother bishops, we’ve made the decisions. I’m happy to say almost all are consonant with what came from the grassroots.”

Of the new consolidations, 48 parishes will merge with a nearby parish to create 24 new parishes. These new parishes will continue to use both church buildings for Masses.

Meanwhile, 64 other parishes will be merged into 31 new parishes that will only celebrate Mass on a regular basis at one church as of Aug. 1, 2015. Zwilling said no decisions have been made on what will happen to the church buildings that will no longer be used for regular Mass on Sundays.


Unresolved Questions

Zwilling added that the archdiocese will have “implementation teams” prepared to work with the merging parishes. Some issues that will arise could include deciding the name of the new parish, determining the Mass schedule and figuring out how to incorporate sacred objects from one church into another.

“Another question that needs to be addressed by the archdiocese is the question of who the pastor will be,” Zwilling added. “It might be one of the pastors from the merged parishes. Or it could be a new pastor. These are all questions that have to be decided.”

The archdiocese said that the parishes to be merged can present new information not previously considered by the parish clusters or archdiocesan officials, which could change the merger plans, though Zwilling said that was unlikely, given “all that has gone on in this process.”

Hinting at the possibility of more mergers in the future, the archdiocese said there are a “small number of new proposals” that have arisen as a result of Cardinal Dolan’s own reflections on the proposals previously presented to him, as well as from his discussions with key advisers.

“There are a handful of situations where the cardinal has asked the local cluster, and then the advisory board, to take another look at a proposal that came from his own careful review of the recommendations given to him,” Zwilling said. “Although he was not obligated to do this, he wanted to hear from the people before making a decision. We hope to have these completed by the early spring.”

In one of the notable parish consolidations, the Church of the Most Precious Blood in Lower Manhattan will be merging with the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the former archdiocesan cathedral that was the largest Catholic Church building in the United States when it was completed in 1815.

According to various published reports before the archdiocese announced the list of parish mergers, parishioners throughout the Archdiocese of New York had mobilized to save their churches by holding rallies, letter-writing campaigns and online petition drives.


Holy Innocents Spared

At the Church of the Holy Innocents, located in Manhattan’s Garment District, traditionalist Catholics across the country expressed support for the parish when it was reported in June that the Archdiocesan Advisory Group, in late April, had recommended merging Holy Innocents and two other churches into St. Francis of Assisi Church. Holy Innocents is not on the list of parishes to be merged.

“My reaction to Cardinal Dolan’s decision to keep Holy Innocents open was, along with all her parishioners, enormous joy and gratitude,” Donald Reynolds, a member of Holy Innocents, told the Register.

Reynolds also noted that Holy Innocents has no debt, that parishioners have raised $700,000 to restore the sanctuary and that it is the only church in the archdiocese of 2.8 million Catholics that offers Mass in the both the extraordinary and ordinary forms seven days a week.

Said Reynolds, “There is definitely a sense of relief among traditionalists.”


Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.