One hundred and ten parishes will be merged resulting in fifty-five parishes. Some churches will be closing entirely except for special events; others will continue to meet as part of a joint parish.
“This time of transition in the history of the archdiocese will undoubtedly be difficult for people who live in parishes that will merge,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in a news release announcing the changes. “There will be many who are hurt and upset as they experience what will be a change in their spiritual lives, and I will be one of them.”
“It will be our responsibility to work with everyone in these parishes so as to help make the change as smooth as we possibly can,” he added.
The last time that the archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, Bronx, and counties north of New York City, created such an upheaval was in 2007 when it implemented a reconfiguration plan that consolidated twenty-one parishes. Over the last fifty years, Dolan says that a total of forty-two parishes were consolidated. However, this new downsizing is the largest in history.
A strategic shift
The upheaval is part of a strategic shift that the New York Catholic church is making in response to demographic changes, financial shortfalls, the inability to recruit enough priests and a decline of lay involvement in the church. In addition the sex abuse scandals have undermined trust in church leaders.
The majority of Catholics in the archdiocese are now of Hispanic heritage, many of whom are recent immigrants. Further, there are other new groups of immigrant Catholics like those from Africa who are concentrating in areas without a parish that is orientated toward their needs and languages.
In its strategic plan the archdiocese concluded that there are about 2.8 million Catholics under its care (this does not count Queens and Brooklyn Catholics who are part of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Long Island). However, its 2013 survey found that only a little over 12% of Catholics attend Mass on an average Sunday. Even so, there are not enough priests to adequately staff every parish. The Archdiocese used to deploy 1,200 of its own priests, but now has only 365 who are augmented by priests from other Catholic organizations. The Archdiocese is also short on money, though it is controversially spending $170 million dollars on the renovation of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
The strategic plan
The changes are not limited to merging parishes and downsizing the number of churches that will offer Masses. The new parish strategic plan outlined in documents made available by the Archdiocese is a wide-ranging vision for a different type of Catholic church, one that involves redeploying its monetary assets, involving lay people in running church activities, reaching out to youth, changing the way Catholic schools are managed and a refocusing of the types of medical and other charity that will be offered.
The Catholic leaders have already downsized and closed Catholic schools in the last several years. The next step is to continue the creation of regional management teams for the schools so that schools can have better connection with local people. In the past the school leadership was concentrated at the top and fragmented at the bottom with each school going its own way. In the future all of the schools in a certain area of the city will lay out plans based on maximizing assets across the whole region.
The Archdiocese is also planning to create regional centers for giving more exciting religious education to Catholic youth. On the college level for the first time the Catholic church is sending young, recent college graduates as lay missionaries to organize fellowships of Catholic students on secular campuses in New York City. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which started in the Midwest in 1998, so far has sent missionaries to Columbia University and New York University.
The Archdiocese is also planning on deploying more assets into social services like home healthcare, visiting nurses, caring for people with special needs and building affordable housing. It is setting aside $300 million of financing for affordable housing.
In the future managers, who are professionally trained to manage Catholic institutions, will be assuming more authority over many activities in the Archdiocese. This is one of several initiatives to involve lay Catholics more in the church and to win back their trust.
Finally, the church is planning on starting new parishes or expanding some churches to accommodate new migrants to the city. It is contemplating an expansion of its presence in Roosevelt Island and starting a new parish to service people moving into the Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan as it is developed. Dolan says that the church will offer more efforts to connect with Hispanic immigrants and that a new parish or church primarily for Catholics from Ghana may be in the offing.
How big will be the fight over the parish consolidations?
But first there may be some fights over the consolidation of parishes and the closing of worship services at some churches. The Cardinal likes to cite a survey in which parishioners at all churches acknowledged “the reality that some parishes will have to be closed or merged if the mission of the Archdiocese is to remain viable.” About three-quarters of parishioners agreed with this statement. In fact the Archdiocese has been recruiting lay support and input for the changes over the last four years. However, the parishioners' answers to other questions show that the Catholic hierarchy has a big political challenge in convincing their people to go along with the new plan.
Three-quarters of the parishioners that were surveyed said that they believe that closing or merging of parishes will cause great disruption to Catholics. They disagreed or strong disagreed with the statement, “I think there are too many parishes in our area. Some could be closed or merged without presenting a great inconvenience to people.”
Today, in certain parishes the mood ranged from acceptance to defiance. Some parishes have been organizing opposition to the changes for several weeks. Parishioners at Church of Our Lady of Peace on East 62nd Street in Manhattan have been very active in their opposition to the plan to merge their church. In response to Dolan's announcement, the Save Our Lady of Peace group encouraged their supporters on Facebook, "Continue your support ...we always have a chance to appeal the decision. Dolan did not provide any valid reasons for Our Lady of Peace to close its doors."
One parishioner outside of The Church of the Holy Agony in East Harlem, shouted at wworshiperscoming out of the church, “Brothers, we cannot allow this happen!”
There are two lists of merging churches.
Each church on the first list will continue to meet on Sundays and for other events but will be part of a merged parish with one church designated as the home church of the parish.
On the second list churches that are merged into another parish will cease regular worship services. These churches will still continue to hold some events like weddings and funerals at the church.
The first list:
The second list: