Reorganization will cut St. Louis Catholic parishes from 178 to 134
The Archdiocese of St. Louis will go from 178 parishes to 134 under a reorganization plan announced Saturday.
“The church experience in our parishes today is not the same as it was 50 years ago,” said Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski. “Yet we are still functioning in many ways out of the same mode of evangelization with the same structures. We have inherited a great treasure of Catholic institutions from previous generations, but many of them are no longer as effective or sustainable as they once were.”
The reorganization known as All Things New was the product of two years' work by church officials and lay leaders, with the help of the Catholic Leadership Institute. The changes will start to take effect Aug. 1, with complete implementation by 2026.
Rozanski said a shrinking and shifting population was the driving factor behind the changes. He acknowledged they would be difficult for faithful Catholics in the region, which includes a city named for a Catholic king of France.
“As archbishop of this incredible community, I wish these changes were not necessary, but it is what we are called to do at this moment,” he said.
Data on the archdiocesan website show the number of Roman Catholics in the archdiocese, which covers the city of St. Louis and 10 nearby counties, dropped below 500,000 in 2021, a number not seen since the 1960s. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, just 33% of pews in the 178 parishes were occupied during weekend Masses.
Thirty-five parishes will be taken over, or subsumed, by neighboring ones. Fifteen will merge with others to create five new parishes.
The archdiocese has ordered two parishes – St. Cronan in the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood and Sts. Peter and Paul in Soulard – to be suppressed, or closed entirely. Both of those are known in the Catholic faith as personal parishes, meaning worshippers choose to attend Mass there, rather than being assigned.
The remaining parishes will continue to exist individually, but many will share one priest. A new personal parish for Hispanic Catholics, St. Juan Diego, will be established in St. Charles County. It will temporarily be housed in the building that is currently home to St. Barnabas the Apostle in O’Fallon, Missouri. St. Barnabas is one of the 35 parishes being taken over by another.
Early drafts of All Things New cut the number of parishes to as few as 71. Rozanski said those more drastic reductions were always intended to be a starting point.
Reactions from parishioners
Some worshippers at St. John the Baptist in the city’s Bevo Mill neighborhood were in tears Sunday morning as their priest, the Rev. Mitch Doyen, read aloud the letter officially announcing the change to the congregation.
St. John the Baptist is one of two south St. Louis parishes being taken over by St. Stephen Protomartyr in the Holly Hills neighborhood. It was first established as a parish in 1913, and the church, at 4200 Delor St., was constructed in 1924.
“You built this church, which must forever be known as St. John the Baptist,” Doyen told his congregation. “John the Baptist is in our bones, and he’s not going away.”
Rozanski has chosen Doyen to lead a parish formed by Most Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas and Sts. Teresa and Bridget, all of which are in north St. Louis. The Rev. Aaron Nord, currently the pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary, will lead the larger St. Stephen Protomartyr Parish.
“I've known Aaron for years. And he's such a kind, gentle, thoughtful, and also brilliant soul,” Doyen said. “All he's going to do over the summer is pray for you and listen to you. And he's going to witness the beautiful gifts that are fully present here.”
Early drafts of All Things New had shown St. John the Baptist staying open as a parish but sharing a priest and cooperating with other south St. Louis churches. Longtime member Michelle Boehne said the announcement of its closure left a bad taste in her mouth.
“I was looking forward to the whole thing, and then it just, you know, with the way the decision was presented, it's unnecessary, and causing unnecessary anger,” she said.
St. John the Baptist took in members of other parishes during a major restructuring in 2005. Kathy Anger, who has been a part of St. John the Baptist for 50 years, said her heart went out to families that had joined the congregation back then and were now being forced to move on again.
“Twenty years seems like a long time, but it really isn’t when you’re setting up new families and gathering together,” she said.
Ken Battis, the president of Save Our St. Louis Parishes, a group of lay Catholics that had pushed for greater transparency about and input into the All Things New process, said he was grateful to God that the cuts were not as drastic as originally planned.
“There is a lot of good news, but there are a lot of affected parishes where we worry about people in anger and despair leaving the church,” he said.
Missouri, Battis said, was one of two states where the number of Catholics actually grew in the last census.
“We want to help Archbishop Rozanski save every soul in the archdiocese, not manage its retreat,” he said.
Church law allows those who are affected by the changes outlined in All Things New to send a letter to the archbishop at the Cardinal Rigali Center to appeal the decisions. No emails or phone calls will be accepted, and letters must be postmarked by June 12.
Battis said his group had heard from parishioners, especially in St. Charles County, who wish to challenge the changes.
The pastors of the five new parishes created through mergers will work with their congregants to determine new names. Decisions about how parish buildings will be used will also be made on the local level.
Barring teacher or student shortages, Saturday’s announcement will not affect Catholic schools in the 2023-24 school year.
“But over these months, our Catholic Education Office will be looking at our schools throughout the archdiocese to see which ones are providing for our people in the best way that they can,” Rozanski said.
St. Louis is not the only place where the Roman Catholic Church has had to adjust to population loss. In recent years, the dioceses in Detroit, Cincinnati and Buffalo, New York, have undergone similar reorganizations.
This is the second major reorganization for the church in St. Louis in less than 20 years. In 2005, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke oversaw the closure of 31 parishes, the largest cut in the archdiocese’s history.
Rozanski said he believes the new structure announced Saturday is sustainable, but he did not know for how long.
“I cannot always guarantee what demographic changes will be, or the number of priests we will have,” he said. “But I will say that this plan has taken into account far into the future for our Catholic Church presence.”
Boehne, who has belonged to St. John the Baptist for 44 years, said she didn’t know if the changes went far enough.
I don't want us to be doing this again in 10 years. It’s too hard,” she said. “Shared experiences is what makes a community, and that only happens over time. And if you do this again in 10 years, it's detrimental to the church as a whole.”