Dwindling numbers could bring the end of a parish Falling numbers could bring the end of a parish

Posted: May 26, 2002

Usher Michael Casertano has greeted parishioners at Seven Dolors Roman Catholic Church for more than 50 years.

Casertano, 82, a produce manager from Wyndmoor, has seen the parish in Springfield, Montgomery County, grow into a thriving church. He has also watched as parishioners gradually drifted away.

Within two years, Casertano may be welcoming worshipers to the same building, but one with a different name and identity. Seven Dolors may become a branch of St. Genevieve in Flourtown.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED JUNE 2, 2002, FOLLOWS: A map in last Sunday's Neighbors editions incorrectly represented the locations of Seven Dolors and St. Genevieve's Roman Catholic churches. The proper locations are shown below. The story failed to make clear several facts about the twinning of two sets of parishes in Montgomery County. The Seven Dolors church building in Wyndmoor would retain its name and remain open for one Mass a week, but the site would no longer be a parish. Instead, Seven Dolors would become a part of St. Genevieve effective June 2003. The recommendation was made by a committee from both parishes. Last Sunday, parishioners at the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph parishes in Cheltenham Township were told that a recommendation had been made to keep the current twinning arrangement, a situation that would be re-evaluated at a later date.

"It hurts," Casertano said. "We started with a little wood-frame church, and we built everything up. Now to see everything go to pieces, we just feel awful."

Last week a committee of parishioners, staff and clergy from the two churches recommended to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua that the 87-year-old Seven Dolors should be closed down and designated an "alternate worship site" of the more populous St. Genevieve. Another committee is expected to recommend continuing the current twinned situation.

The recommendation came out of the cluster planning process, an initative the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began in 1996 in an effort to adapt to changing demographics. Seven Dolors, like other Catholic churches that have closed, is a victim of the numbers.

Registration has declined by nearly 50 percent in 10 years. Members are mostly middle-aged and older. The parish has no school, and there is no predicted influx of young Catholic families.

Seven Dolors' pastor, the Rev. Robert J. Carroll, 52, spends his week dashing between the Wyndmoor church and St. Genevieve as the pastor of twinned parishes - churches that share a priest.

"The population boom that's going on in other sections of the [suburbs] is not going on here," Father Carroll said. "The decision to twin was an attempt to recognize that with the numbers of priests and the numbers of parishioners, things couldn't remain the same."

Father Carroll was appointed to the post two years ago when the two churches were paired.

In 1996, the archdiocese divided its 287 parishes into 41 groups and ordered them to find ways to increase and sustain their ministries.

A substantial number were in the older suburban communities around Philadelphia. Schools in some neighborhoods were closed, and new schools and two parishes were opened in booming suburban neighborhoods in central Bucks County and parts of Chester County.

In Seven Dolors' cluster, the pastoral planning committee recommending twinning that parish with St. Genevieve. Two other churches in the cluster, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph's, both in Cheltenham, were also twinned. The committee's recommendation included the provision that both twinning arrangements would be evaluated in two years.

At Mass today, that committee is expected to announce to parishioners its recommendation to continue the twinning with St. Genevieve, said Msgr. John Marine, vicar of Montgomery County. The recommendation also will call for evaluating the situation again in two years. But it could be reassessed sooner if there are drastic demographic changes.

Between 1990 and 2000, Seven Dolors' registration decreased from 1,448 to 785. Baptisms declined from 18 to 3. At St. Genevieve, registrations increased from 2,845 to 2,986, while baptisms declined from 45 to 40.

The two churches' nine-member twinning evaluation committee began meeting in December. Made up of laypeople from both parishes, staff members, and Father Carroll, the committee considered five alternatives, including merging the churches into a new congregation. It decided to recommend the closing of Seven Dolors and the redrawing of St. Genevieve's parish boundaries to include Seven Dolors. The Wyndmoor parish's graceful and airy sanctuary would become an "alternate worship site."

As an alternate worship site, Seven Dolors' five weekly Masses would be reduced to one. Funerals could be performed at the church, but other sacraments such as weddings and baptisms could not, according to canon law. The financial responsibility of supporting the church's five buildings would be shared by a newly combined parish of nearly 4,000 instead of one of 800.

Seven Dolors parishioner Angie Sarsfield, 71, usually attends Mass about three times each week. She lives a block away and walks to the service. With only one Sunday Mass in the sanctuary each week, Sarsfield anticipates her attendance will decline.

"We're going to have to make that one Mass," she said. "Right now, that's all I'm going to do."

The twinning committee's decision to retain the Wyndmoor church as an alternate worship site was specifically intended to keep a church in the neighborhood, committee members said.

"The silver lining is, we're still here," said parishioner Kenneth Bradley, 35, a member of the twinning committee. "We can still come to Sunday Mass."

At a meeting May 2, Bradley and fellow parishioner and committee member Alba V. Bear were compelled to tell people who had been married and baptized at Seven Dolors that they had recommended closing the church.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Bear said. "We cried and the people cried at the meeting."

Bear, a mother of six who was raised in the parish, listened for hours to angry and sad parishioners. She has watched the parish struggle for years with shrinking membership and student enrollment that forced its school to close in the mid-1980s.

But she hopes that Seven Dolors parishioners will remain faithful through yet another trial.

"That's the only thing I ask," Bear said. "Don't give up. I hope that we can keep going even if it's just open one day. Keep this gorgeous church alive."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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