Archdiocese review has some congregations nervous

The Rev. Joseph Brandt offers Holy Communion to children at St. Luke the Evangelist church in Glenside during morning Mass.
The Rev. Joseph Brandt offers Holy Communion to children at St. Luke the Evangelist church in Glenside during morning Mass. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: September 23, 2013

THE REGION Bernard Gutkowski has spent much of his 65 years on earth inside the walls of the Sacred Heart Church in the Swedesburg section of Bridgeport. That's where Gutkowski was an altar boy, got married, and later brought his children on Sundays.

"This church is my whole life," said Gutkowski, who has served on several church boards and runs a funeral home in the Montgomery County town.

Last week, Gutkowski and other parishioners learned their church was one of 46 in the Philadelphia area that are next to undergo a review as the archdiocese assesses its parish structure.

The process, known as the Parish Area Pastory Planning Initiative and announced in 2010, might end up having little impact on some churches. But it already has also led to the closure and mergers of dozens of others.

That makes some parishioners anxious, Gutkowski said.

"Our church is vibrant," he said. "I think the older people, in particular, they hear that and they wonder, What's going to happen to us?"

In announcing the initiative, Archbishop Charles Chaput said all parishes must evaluate their finances and their ability to serve parishioners. At the time, there were 266 parishes in the archdiocese; now there are 235.

Over the coming months, the 46 parishes under review will be examined by a committee consisting of laypersons, pastors and other priests, and archdiocesan personnel. The committee will make recommendations to stay the course, merge, or implement a plan to sustain church operations.

"The smaller churches will be going through this together," said Ken Gavin, director of communications for the archdiocese. "The goal isn't closing - it's ultimately to strengthen our churches."

In studying the parishes, the archdiocese will consider each church's geographic area, its Mass attendance, and any financial challenges it faces. Decisions aren't likely until the spring, Gavin said.

Any future decisions on parishes would not affect Catholic schools, Gavin said, even if those schools are attached to parishes that merge or close.

Many churches up for review broke the news to parishioners via regular church bulletins. But the Rev. Joseph Brandt mentioned it in his Sunday Mass at St. Luke the Evangelist, in Glenside.

Brandt acknowledged the need for some mergers. In his Montgomery County area alone, he said, there are sometimes more than 20 Masses per weekend.

And not all Catholics are showing up for those Masses, he said.

"I'm supposed to have 6,000 Catholics at St. Luke's; and sometimes I'm getting 1,300," he said.

Staffing is a concern, Brandt said. With one priest in each parish, and fewer men entering the seminaries, holding regular services may become a challenge in the years to come. Priests are getting older, he said, and some want to retire.

Maintaining the aging buildings is another burden, he said, particularly when churches must rely on community support for funding roof repairs, boiler replacements, or other needs.

On paper, it makes sense to consider closing or merging churches, Brandt said.

"But these ideas are met with hard reactions," he said. "It's not an easy process, because our people are very invested in their parishes. But this is the reality we're dealing with."

To many Catholics who grew up in the area and stayed here, local schools and parishes are central to their identities, said Susan Matthews of Catholics4Change, an online forum created largely to address concerns surrounding the church sex-abuse scandal.

"No other issue gets people riled up in the way parish and school closings do," she said. "It is so emotionally charged. And in this case, it mostly has to do with geography and finances."

To some parishes, it should be clear that changes are necessary, Matthews said. People notice when fewer people are showing up for Mass. Rather than resist change, Matthews said, Catholics should see the coming months as a call to support their churches and start working to strengthen them.

"People need to not just show up on Sundays, but really get involved, find out what the church needs," Matthews said. "How are we going to prevent future closures? How are we going to make sure our churches thrive? I think there's not enough happening on that end."

Some parishes have already taken action. When the pastor at St. Edmond Parish in South Philadelphia became ill and had to take a break from giving regular Mass, the Rev. Joseph Kelley of nearby St. Monica's Church stepped in and began filling in by giving services at both parishes. The churches are about a half-mile from each other, and both are up for review this year.

"In a sense, St. Edmond and St. Monica have already merged," Kelley said. "The parishioners at both have seen no change in their services, and it's been working out well."

Gutkowski, the Swedesburg funeral director, said some Catholics feel that individual parishes are threatened because the archdiocese has failed to address underlying problems: that church attendance is declining, and few men are joining the priesthood.

His church, Sacred Heart, has weathered more than its share of challenges, including a pastor who was suspended after he was charged with sexual abuse last year.

But Masses are well-attended, Gutkowski said, and the congregation is dedicated. The annual Polish festival, which celebrates the area's immigrant roots, draws thousands each year, along with the Italian feast organized by nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel, also on the list for evaluation this year.

"We're doing our part to make these places mainstays in the community," he said. "It's up to them to look at themselves and find out where their mistakes are and where they're going wrong. Let them clean their own houses before they clean everyone else's."


PARISHES UNDER REVIEW

Philadelphia

  • Holy Spirit
  • St. Charles Borromeo
  • St. Edmond
  • St. Gabriel
  • St. Monica
  • St. Richard
  • St. Rita of Cascia
  • St. Thomas Aquinas

Montgomery County

  • Mother of Divine Providence
  • Our Lady of Mount Carmel
  • Queen of Peace
  • Sacred Heart
  • St. Augustine
  • SS. Cosmas and Damian
  • St. David
  • St. Gertrude
  • St. John on the Cross
  • St. Luke the Evangelist
  • St. Mary
  • St. Matthew

Bucks County

  • Immaculate Conception BVM
  • Our Lady of Fatima
  • Our Lady of Grace
  • Queen of Universe
  • St. Ann
  • St. Charles Borromeo
  • St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
  • St. Ephrem
  • St. Frances Cabrini
  • St. Joseph the Worker
  • St. Mark
  • St. Michael the Archangel
  • St. Thomas Aquinas

Delaware County

  • Holy Spirit
  • Notre Dame de Lourdes
  • Our Lady of Fatima
  • Our Lady of Peace
  • Our Lady of Perpetual Help
  • Sacred Heart
  • St. Eugene
  • St. Gabriel
  • St. George
  • St. Joseph
  • St. Madeline
  • St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
  • St. Rose of Lima

Contact Allison Steele at 610-313-8113 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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