Thriving Notre Dame parish fights to stay open

Posted: June 13, 2014

With 750 attendees at weekend Masses, healthy finances, and an elementary school, parishioners at Notre Dame de Lourdes Church thought their community was thriving.

Now, they are fighting to stay open.

The Swarthmore, Delaware County, parish is one of 16 that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to close this summer. Its case shows that parish mergers are not limited to churches with dwindling attendance or troubled finances.

Notre Dame had a budget surplus last year, according to financial reports obtained by The Inquirer. It is to join Our Lady of Peace Church in nearby Milmont Park, which ran a $42,000 deficit for the fiscal year ending in June 2013.

The parishes are merging against the recommendation of a committee of pastors and parishioners that reviewed both churches. And Notre Dame runs a school that has served both parishes since 2010, when Our Lady of Peace closed its school.

"We're a perfect example of what a parish should be," said Notre Dame parishioner Tom Donahue. "We're vibrant, we're active, we have a school."

Decisions to merge parishes are not limited to finances, said archdiocesan spokesman Ken Gavin. He said factors also include demographics, availability of priests, building conditions, and distance between churches. "You need to look at the big picture and all of the things together," Gavin said.

Notre Dame's income totaled $37,000 more than its expenses in the fiscal year ending in June 2013, according to financial data obtained by The Inquirer, while Our Lady of Peace booked a $42,000 loss that year. The records also show that Our Lady of Peace had more than $800,000 of outstanding debt, while Notre Dame had $54,000.

When the parishes merge, so will their assets.

"But again, that's not a bailout," Gavin said. "That's the money going where it should. It's going with the people."

He said an engineering firm's review of facilities at both parishes found that future maintenance costs at Our Lady of Peace would be less than at Notre Dame.

The school and church buildings will remain at Notre Dame. Gavin said the merged parish would determine how to maintain its properties.

Gavin said this is not the only instance of a parish merger moving schools and parishes to different locations. St. Donato Church in West Philadelphia closed last year but its adjoining school, St. Frances Cabrini Regional School, still operates at the site.

Attendance at the two Delaware County parishes has declined since 2008, according to the archdiocese. Notre Dame draws an average of 750 people to its weekend Masses, while Our Lady of Peace has an average attendance of 550. Notre Dame parishioners argue that their population is younger; the parish had 46 baptisms in 2012, compared with 12 at Our Lady of Peace.

Also at Notre Dame, construction is underway on a home for developmentally disabled men who now live at the church-run Don Guanella Village in Marple Township. The archdiocese is in moving Don Guanella residents into smaller group homes around the region, and eight men will move to Swarthmore this summer regardless of the status of the parish.

Kevin Barr, director of development and parish outreach for Don Guanella Village, said he "had envisioned just a really, really strong connection with the parish" for the men moving into that home.

"I keep saying, the numbers don't add up," said Donahue, a spokesman for the parish's appeal.

The Rev. Karl Zeuner, pastor of Notre Dame, declined to comment. The Rev. Robert Feeney, the pastor of Our Lady of Peace and the appointed pastor of the merged parish, did not return messages seeking comment.

In its weekly bulletin Sunday, Our Lady of Peace asked its parishioners "to write to the archbishop and say thanks for allowing us to remain open."

Donahue said his parish would file an appeal and petition to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, and have the option of appealing to church officials in Rome.

Since the archdiocese began reviewing and merging parishes in 2010, Gavin said, no decision has been overturned on appeal. Parishioners at least four churches set to close this month have said they plan to file appeals by the deadline next Tuesday. 610-313-8116


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