The scene at Our Lady of Mount Carmel was repeated Saturday afternoon at 46 of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 235 parishes.
In all, The Inquirer has learned, the church decided to close 16 parishes, merging them with 13 neighboring parishes. The status of the remaining 17 parishes will not change. This will leave the archdiocese with 219 parishes, down from 266 in 2010, when it launched a systemic push to review and downsize its facilities.
The parishes targeted for closure Saturday had nearly 35,000 enrolled members in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. That is down about 15 percent from the figure a decade before.
The fates of the 46 parishes - part of the latest review of parishes to determine which can be sustained as the Roman Catholic Church in Southeastern Pennsylvania grapples with declining attendance and shifting populations - were announced at the first weekend Mass in each of the parishes.
Of the group, 13 parishes will grow in size, having been formally designated as receiving churches for the closed ones.
The remaining 17 parishes that were part of the review - which included areas in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, but not Chester County - will continue as freestanding parishes for now.
The closings made public Saturday reflect powerful social factors. For many years, the Catholic Church, here and nationally, has suffered from a decline in attendance at services. Since 2003 alone, average weekly attendance in the five-county archdiocese has dropped by more than a quarter, to about 250,000, official church figures show.
The decline has been driven by broad social trends, notably a trend in urban areas away from organized religion, as well as the damage wrought by the priest sex-abuse scandal.
'I cannot understand'
In Montgomery County, six of 12 parishes under review are being merged, including three into St. Matthew Parish in Conshohocken and two into Sacred Heart in Swedesburg.
At Mount Carmel, Pronesti and congregants were shocked at Friday's news that their parish will be absorbed. With about $1 million in the bank, no debts, and the highest attendance among four in the area parishes that could have been merged, they expected Mount Carmel to survive.
Mount Carmel's average weekend Mass attendance climbed 4 percent, to 466, between 2008 and 2012. Over the same period, attendance at Sacred Heart fell 23 percent, to 300 from 391, archdiocesan data show.
"I cannot understand why," Pronesti told the congregants during Mass. "I cannot pretend that I do."
The parish has existed for 90 years, serving a large community of Italian immigrants, many of whom arrived in the 1950s, after World War II. The church still offers a monthly Mass in Italian to aging parishioners.
Many of the parishioners have attended no other church their entire lives. They include Joe Fabrizio, 65, who continues to worship there even though he now lives about 40 minutes away in New Hanover Township.
"My wife and I wanted to be buried in this church," he said after Mass. "This came as a shock. It's hard to understand how the archdiocese made the decision. What went on behind the scenes we'll never know."
In South Philadelphia, where eight churches were examined, two will become part of neighboring parishes. Holy Spirit Parish, on 18th Street south of the Schuylkill Expressway, will merge into St. Richard of Chichester.
St. Richard's parishioners, who were at a street festival Saturday to raise money for St. Pio, the regional Catholic school next door, were happy, but also thinking about how the members of Holy Spirit felt.
"I feel sorry for Holy Spirit's parishioners," said Lisa Cimino, who teaches prekindergarten at St. Pio. "I hope they merge with us and we form a joint parish," she said.
Parishioners at St. Edmond Church, at 21st Street and Snyder Avenue, were told that their parish will merge with St. Monica but that their church will remain open for weekend services.
The compromise pleased Tony Anselmo.
"I can go to work happy now," said Anselmo, 57, who works for a steamship company and as off to a second job at Macy's.
At Our Lady of Peace Church in Milmont Park, Delaware County, the congregation broke into applause Saturday evening after the Rev. John Bradley announced the church would remain open.
Notre Dame de Lourdes in Swarthmore, where the pastor, the Rev. Karl Zeuner, expressed confidence Friday that his parish would survive the review, will close and merge with Our Lady of Peace.
The school at Notre Dame de Lourdes will remain open.
The Rev. Robert Feeney, pastor of Our Lady of Peace, said he was surprised by the archdiocese's decision to keep the parish open, especially since he had joined other area pastors in recommending that the archdiocese close Our Lady of Peace. Their recommendation was that the 1,311-household parish merge with the slightly larger Notre Dame de Lourdes. In the end, church leaders adopted the opposite approach.
Feeney received the news Friday afternoon at a meeting with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and about 31 pastors, he said.
Average weekly attendance at Our Lady of Peace was 556 in 2012, down almost a quarter from 726 in 2008, according to archdiocesan data. Notre Dame had a similar decline, to 753 from 994 over the same period, archdiocesan data show.
Parishioners gathered weekly to pray for the parish and some, including 74-year-old Barbara Gahles, wrote the archdiocese, hoping to persuade it not to close the church.
Frank Martin, a 76-year-old parishioner, said the last few weeks had been nerve-racking. Martin had thought other parishes with schools had an edge over Our Lady of Peace, where the parish school has been closed for six years.
Still, Stephen Pisano, a parishioner there for 31 years, said the parish community would not have been broken if the news had not been good.
"This is a building," he said, gesturing to the old stone church. "They can't take our heart."