Heavy hearts abound with church mergers

Posted: April 16, 2012

MOST BIG moments in Janet Clark's life happened at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church on a hilly, narrow street in Manayunk.

Before Mass Sunday night, Clark recalled life's turning points as she prepared to step inside the 1849 church, a place where she'd been going since shortly after her birth 60 years ago.

"My parents were married here. They were buried here. I was baptized here. My children were baptized here," said Clark, her voice quivering.

"It's a family here and now it's a family being torn apart," she said.

Her parish is one of seven set to close by July 1. As a result of sharp declines in membership, Mass attendance and baptisms, and a marked drop in the number of available priests, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput plans to merge 12 parishes into five.

In Manayunk, St. John the Baptist, St. Mary and St. Josaphat will merge into St. John the Baptist, while St. Lucy and Holy Family will merge into Holy Family.

In Germantown, St. Francis of Assisi, Immaculate Conception and St. Vincent de Paul will merge into St. Vincent de Paul.

In Coatesville, Chester County, Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Cecilia parishes will merge into Our Lady of the Rosary. Saint Joseph and Saint Stanislaus Kostka will merge into St. Joseph's.

More mergers are expected to be announced this fall through 2014.

"Restructuring our parishes will be a challenge for many families and individuals. Change is rarely easy," Chaput said in a statement Sunday. "But we do need to take these steps to help every parish more effectively promote the Gospel and strengthen the future of our Catholic lives together."

Before Mass Sunday night at St. Mary's, parishioners hovered around, solemn and sullen, as if they had just learned of a family death. As soon as Clark spotted Mary Tietjen, who joined the parish in 1991, she walked up to hug her and bury her head in her shoulder.

"I know it's hard," said Clark, her arms wrapped tightly around Tietjen. "It hurts, but we'll get through this."

Tietjen said the parishoners have played the role of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. "My family is in Pittsburgh, so this parish became a second family to me. My three children were raised here. My daughter met her husband here. They married here."

In 2010, there were seven infant baptisms and two weddings at St. Mary's.

Clark and Tietjen said they didn't know where they will go next.

"It's a small church here, but we love it," Clark said. "If I go to another church, it will take a while for me to commit. To commit will be very hard. I can't go through this again.

"I'm not going to join until I'm really, really sure," Clark said.

"I might die before then."

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