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100 Churches May Shut, Merge

Catholic Diocese faces precipitous drop in number of priests

By JAY TOKASZ News Staff Reporter11/8/2005

As many as 100 churches in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo would have to be closed or merged to bring the diocese in line with others of similar population, geographic size and priest numbers.
Diocesan officials said they don't know yet how many churches would be targeted for closing or merger.

But some members of a diocesan planning commission acknowledged during interviews with The Buffalo News that they anticipate anywhere from 60 to 100 parishes could be consolidated or closed over the next two to three years - in anticipation of a precipitous drop in the number of priests available to staff churches.

More than a third of diocesan priests are scheduled to retire in the next decade.

Diocesan officials forecast 142 diocesan priests will be available in 2015, down from 234 diocesan priests who are currently active in ministry. The diocese of about 700,000 Catholics in eight counties has 274 parishes and missions.

Diocesan officials, who launched a two-year restructuring process over the summer, have emphasized repeatedly that they won't know how many churches will be closed or merged until all parishes have had an opportunity to review themselves over the next several months.
"It's too early in the process," said spokesman Kevin A. Keenan. "We just don't have that."
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, nonetheless, explained in a meeting with priests that dioceses with similar populations and priest numbers on average have 80 to 100 fewer parishes than the Buffalo Diocese.

In its analysis, diocesan officials examined 18 other dioceses, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Some already have gone through a restructuring, notably Pittsburgh, which trimmed more than a third of its parishes.

"Some have done it well, and other dioceses have not done it so well, and the difference really is how involved the people are," said Sister Nancy Hoff, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Regional Community of Buffalo, and a member of the planning commission appointed by Kmiec .

Some commission members agreed that the diocese probably would have to consolidate at least 60 parishes and possibly as many as 100 in an effort to make the remaining parishes more vibrant.

"That would be reasonable to expect," said Debbie Brown, director of sacramental and liturgical life at St. John the Baptist parish in Lockport and a commission member.

Monsignor Leonard E. Biniszkiewicz, pastor of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus and also a commission member, termed such a pruning "very reasonable" to expect.

"Whether that's going to be the reality in the end, I don't know," he said. "The commission has not come up with a plan that's already in effect or anything like that."

Biniszkiewicz said the diocese, even when it was flush with priests, was overbuilt with parishes.
Several far-flung rural parishes were established with the idea that they would grow. They continued on for years, often as a training ground for young priests, even though the growth often never happened.

"It was not irresponsible; it was just the age we lived in. It's a totally different story now," said Biniszkiewicz.

The diocese's plan for restructuring, called "Journey in Faith & Grace," moved into its second phase last month. Over the next year or so, clusters of parishes will develop recommendations for the future configuration of churches and schools within the cluster. Those recommendations will be forwarded to the planning commission by Jan. 1, 2007.

Diocesan officials and commission members emphasized that no parishes have been targeted for closure at this point.

And some commission members weren't as convinced about widespread closures.
"I don't know whether the solution is always closing parishes. I'm sure some will, but there are other creative things to do," Hoff said.

The priest shortage isn't the only reason for the diocesan-wide restructuring.

To illustrate, diocesan officials have unveiled reams of statistics, available at the diocesan Web site,

Average weekend Mass attendance is down 15 percent since 1995; baptisms and marriages are down 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively, in that same time period; and the number of registered Catholic households has fallen 8 percent.

"Even if we had enough priests, even if money wasn't an issue, we still need a spiritual renewal," said Brown. "The statistics are alarming, but it's saying we're not getting the job done and people aren't coming. We need to be more spirit-led."

Nearly two-thirds of priests currently assigned to Catholic churches in the City of Buffalo either will be retired or serving in suburban or rural parishes within the next decade, according to diocesan projections.

The diocese has 50 priests working in 58 parishes in the city. That number would decrease to 18 priests by 2015, based on a model that diocesan officials are examining for how they might staff churches in the future.

The model is based on average weekend attendance in geographic segments of the diocese called vicariates.

The city, which is no longer predominantly Catholic, would see the biggest loss of pastors in those forecasts.

The projections are part of a list of guidelines developed by the planning commission.
The 28 pages of guidelines feature a "checklist" of indicators that parishioners should consider when determining whether a church is vibrant enough to continue.

The checklist asks rural parishes if they have at least 100 active families; urban parishes, at least 500 active families; and suburban parishes, at least 1,000 active families.

It also inquires whether the church is at least two-thirds full for each weekend liturgy.

"We have to start evaluating our parishes, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is saying to every single parish in the Diocese of Buffalo, do we have the right to exist?" Biniszkiewicz said. "As we do this now, hopefully we will create the kind of parishes where this need not happen again."
related posts: "Annals of Neglect"

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