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St. Louis Catholics fear archdiocese proposal to consolidate parishes would hurt churches

Rev. Charles Samson consecrates the body and blood of Christ
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Charles Samson consecrates the body and blood of Christ last year at the Old Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France.

A plan by the Archdiocese of St. Louis to consolidate its parishes has Catholics worried about their churches.

The archdiocese released a draft of its proposal Wednesday. The plan would reduce the number of parishes across the St. Louis region from 178 individual parishes to 88 pastorates, communities of parishes led by one pastor and one staff.

Changing demographics, a shortage of priests and shrinking congregations led to the proposal, said the Rev. Chris Martin, vicar of strategic planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

“We still have an infrastructure that reflects the immigrant church from the 19th century,” Martin said. “We actually still have one of the highest priest-per-capita ratios in the United States, it's just that our people have moved, and we have tried to maintain a priest presence, and all of these churches that over the last 30 years have seen a lot of their congregations either move or die.”

Archdiocese leaders said pastorates could take on different forms, depending on the size of each parish and its needs. Some may remain individual parishes; others could merge or share pastoral staff and priests with another. Churches could also have to change the times they hold Mass, depending on a priest’s availability.

The archdiocese projects it will have up to 135 full-time parish priests over the next 10 years. Representatives from the archdiocese's offices of Catholic education, racial harmony, evangelization and finance were among those who helped develop the proposed maps.

Martin said planners considered congregation size, school enrollment trends, traffic patterns, parish finances, surveys and comments from listening sessions held in November.

“If you have three parishes that are kind of struggling, does it make sense to have them come together so they can shore up the ship and become stable, instead of struggling independently of each other?” Martin asked.

The church engaged Catholic Leadership Institute to consult in the effort, called All Things New, in addition to holding the listening sessions with parishioners. But some Catholics say their input does not appear to be shaping the plans.

“I had sent a letter to my pastor, and basically I got the response of ‘Don’t you trust the archbishop and what’s going on?’” said Joan Tabash-Curbow, who lives in an area in south St. Louis County near Grant's Farm where four parishes would merge under the archdiocese’s plan. “And for many many years I did, but when I heard this come out in the fall, something clicked with me and I’m like, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of them managing decline.”

Members of Save Our St. Louis Parishes, an organization of parishioners concerned about the plan, have asked for access to the data the Catholic Leadership Institute used when it developed a forecast that parish restructuring will increase attendance at Mass. They are also asking the church to recognize Bob Onder, a state senator from St. Charles County, as an official representative of churchgoers in the ongoing discussions.

The archdiocese has invited parishioners to give feedback to their priests, who will pass the sentiments to the archdiocese. Leaders of individual churches have until Feb. 17 to submit feedback. Archdiocese leaders will announce the final plans in May.

Merged parishes would have more resources following consolidations and restructuring efforts, allowing some to invest in other necessities, Martin said. But many parishioners and Catholic organizations say the proposals have led churchgoers unsure about the future of their places of worship.

Save Rome of the West, a group formed to keep churches open, has hired a lawyer to provide free assistance to parishes that want to file church appeals.

“It's not like a poker chip to just cash in because you can't manage funds,” said Jason Bolte, founder of Save Rome of the West. “This is for the glorification of, you know, being for God's greater glory.”

Catholic law requires the archdiocese to establish just cause to close a church. Bolte said mergers and closures across the county have led to more people leaving the church.

“You're looking at about 20% or greater that will end up leaving the church as a result of these mergers or closings,” Bolte said. “If you're going to truly address the situation of evangelization, why would you intentionally do something that would cause people to leave if you're trying to bring people in?”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.