By Manya Brachear Pashman, Reporter, Chicago Tribune
A radical overhaul in the nation’s third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church’s houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church’s chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage — an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese’s 351 parishes — could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.
Based primarily on those projections and on future capital needs, the priests who attended the meetings say a large number of churches could close over the next 14 years. Several of those priests who attended the sessions with the archbishop shared details about the reorganization process with the Tribune, some requesting anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussion and because they didn’t have permission to speak on behalf of the archdiocese.
The reorganization process will kick into high gear next week when auxiliary bishops begin meeting with parish leaders and staff in their regions to discuss solutions.
Such a massive parish reorganization would be larger than — and play out much differently from — Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s decision in 1990 to close and merge more than 40 parishes, which along with school closings and a 10 percent cutback in administrative costs was aimed at saving $13 million annually.
No cost-saving target has been announced for this plan, but Chief Operating Officer Betsy Bohlen says the initiative is less about economics and more about fortifying the church’s mission.
“If anything, the financial impact of this effort will be avoiding having to spend capital repair dollars that are unaffordable,” said Bohlen, adding that the archdiocese has just launched a review to gauge those deferred costs. “But that’s not the most significant reason (for the reorganization) at all.”
St. Adalbert Catholic Church in the Pilsen neighborhood will be closing its doors, the Chicago Archdiocese announced Feb. 14, 2016.
Indeed, while the closings in the 1990s addressed a budget shortfall that the archdiocese could not afford at the time, priests say Cupich has embarked on the latest effort because the church must ensure its future.
In a message to parishioners that appeared this week in Catholic New World, the archdiocesan newspaper, and that Cupich has shared with priests and advisers in the past month, the archbishop casts the parish reorganization as an opportunity for renewal.
“Demographics have shifted dramatically,” he wrote. “Some of our parish buildings are in disrepair. We have fewer priests to pastor our faith communities. The result is that we end up spreading our resources too thinly.
“I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that by the time this consultative process is complete, we will mourn together the loss of some parishes,” he added. “But that will not be the final word. By having the boldness to leave behind familiar ways of doing things, we can seize this season as one that is not simply of loss, but rather of renewal.”
Priests who spoke to the Tribune said, based on the expected priest shortfall and future infrastructure needs, as many as 100 churches could close over the next 14 years.
Bohlen said that could be the case if leaders in the archdiocese decide to assign one pastor per parish. But it’s unlikely that such a generic formula would be applied universally, she said.
“Parishes are very vital homes for people,” she said. “It’s closely connected to their faith life, and we take that very seriously. If they are a strong presence in the community, we’re biased to keep the strong presences out there. I don’t know how it’s going to play out.”
Cupich did not speculate in the column how many parishes might close. But it’s the numbers behind Cupich’s reference to the shortage of priests that is guiding preliminary projections for how many parishes could close or merge, sources said.
By 2030, there will be an estimated 240 priests available to fill Chicago’s pulpits, Bohlen said.
Those priests could be assigned individually to parishes, or to multiple churches in any variety of configurations, which ultimately will affect how many parishes eventually shutter. The estimate of 240 priests available for parishes by 2030 is not a firm figure, because not all ordained priests serve as pastors. Some work as canon lawyers, professors or administrators. And some simply aren’t ready to serve as pastors right after ordination, Bohlen said.
At the present rate, about 180 priests are expected to retire by 2030, replaced by roughly 10 ordinations a year, Bohlen said.
Since religious orders, which sometimes help fill pulpits, are facing the same shortages, the archdiocese may not be able to rely on them to fill the gap.
“No one wants to be the pastor of two or three parishes if they can help it,” said the Rev. Don Nevins, co-chair of the priests’ steering committee for the reorganization effort. “How do you make each of those parishes very vital?”
In the Pilsen neighborhood, representatives from six parishes — Providence of God, St. Adalbert, St. Ann, St. Paul, St. Pius V, and St. Procopius — as well as the Jesuit and Dominican provinces met last fall to discuss options and deliver recommendations to Cupich.
Though the Pilsen project was intended to solve the question of what to do with one parish’s dilapidated building and the neighborhood’s shortage of priests, and not intended to be a pilot for the wider consolidation, Nevins said, it has provided a useful template. Conversations in their meetings centered on the question, “How can we form parishes that are going to respond to future needs with future resources that we’re going to have?”
Parish leaders also discussed the ministries that set their communities apart, which led to more discussions about making sure those ministries continued even if parishes closed, Nevins said. That kind of collaboration is exactly how clergy and church officials hope the process will unfold across the archdiocese — in ways that are particular to each community. There will be no “one-size-fits-all” approach, Bohlen said.
While about a quarter of the 351 parishes in the archdiocese now receive financial aid, the archdiocese will weigh three additional factors when assessing the sustainability of parishes: capital needs, pastor availability and mission vitality.
Mission vitality will be based on people in the pews and less tangible, more pastoral metrics such as whether the community supports each other in prayer and worship, engages the millennial generation and brings newcomers to the church, fulfilling the church’s and Pope Francis’ call to evangelize. Efforts also will be made to avoid creating church deserts — neighborhoods with no accessible Catholic parish.
Shifting the decisions to auxiliary bishops who oversee each region will help ensure that, reflecting Cupich and the pope’s mutual inclination to decentralize power.
Cupich also has emphasized to advisers, including the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, that the process will take an egalitarian approach and no parish will be left out. Affluent parishes bursting at the seams will feel the pinch too, he has said.
Priests say the process will be nothing like the closings in 1990, when priests found out suddenly that their doors would be shut by the end of the year. One priest suffered a heart attack after delivering the news to his congregation on Sunday morning.
Back then, archbishops of other major cities frowned on Bernardin’s decision, saying closing parishes just wasn’t done. This time, priests say, Chicago is late in acting. Priests and parishioners in Boston and New York have already suffered painful parish closings in the past decade.
“Everyone is looking to see what we do,” Nevins said. “We’ve been a little more fortunate in our priest personnel. … We better do it now or we’re going to be in real trouble. I’m going to be 80 running a parish and that’s not good for anybody.”
The Rev. Thomas Belanger, pastor of St. Philip Neri parish who serves as dean over a cluster of 21 South Side parishes and schools, said this kind of reorganization has been inevitable.
“A lot of our parishioners have already gone through two or three closures under Cardinal Bernardin,” he said, adding that the late Chicago Archdiocese leader Cardinal Francis George largely avoided closing churches. “Archbishop Cupich inherited that.”
While priests have conveyed to Cupich that he should pursue the plan aggressively, they also have told him it should not be done all at once, so lessons learned can be applied to each subsequent slate of closures.
“What most guys would say would be, ‘Don’t bleed us to death. If there is no hope here, why are we putting so much effort and money into keeping the place going if it’s only going to be open for another year or so?’ ” Nevins said. “Let’s look at things aggressively and look at what kind of configuration do we need.”
But some priests are concerned that the plan is too drastic and will hurt parishioners. A priest who spoke on the condition of anonymity said too many have witnessed a church or school closing and the effect it has on the community.
“We are piercing the soul of the people when we close these places,” he said. “There is blood on the streets. Some people have supported these places for their entire lives.”
Richard Olszewski, a parishioner at St. Adalbert, a historically Polish parish in the Pilsen neighborhood, said generations of his family have supported that parish for a century.
Modeled after St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome and designed in Revival Renaissance style, the parish features Italian marble, stained-glass windows and one of the world’s largest Kimball pipe organs. The church’s 185-foot towers are the highest structures in the Pilsen neighborhood, according to Preservation Chicago. But in recent years they have been crumbling and hidden under scaffolding. Parishioners are trying to raise $3 million to fix them by April when the scaffolding must come down.
Olszewski said he has been told Cupich does not want museums. But for Olszewski the beauty of St. Adalbert is more than a museum. For decades, it has brought him closer to God.
Belanger, however, said he hopes building stronger and more vital parishes will encourage more Catholics to invest in their parishes and bring many more closer to the church.
“Why keep a presence if you’re not really reaching out to the community?” Belanger said. “If you build a larger community, that will entice a larger community back to the life of the church.”