Guest Post: Oshkosh Hermit: The Anatomy of Parish Closures

I have enlisted the assistance of the "Oshkosh Hermit" for a series of posts.  

Closing churches? This topic’s about as much fun as getting a dry socket at 5:02 PM on a Friday. Matt kept badgering me to write about it though, for reasons known but to God and Matt’s confessor. Here goes.

I've lived in four of Wisconsin’s five dioceses; I worked at a parish that was being closed; I've gone to mass all over the Dairy State, a number of times at churches that were being closed; many friends and relatives have endured church closings, a handful more than once while living in the same spot; and the parish in which I was married, my parents were married, my great grandparents were married, and which had been in my family for five generations was – you guessed it – recently closed. All this does not make me an expert in church closures, and, “the plural of anecdote is not data,” as they say.

There are myriad reasons why parishes get shuttered. If you’re on Badger Catholic, you already know dozens of reasons. At its most crassly oversimplified level, a parish is like a stool with three legs named Money, Parishioners, and Priests…should one of those legs be missing, the stool tips over, and the parish is no more. Do I like this?  No.  Is natural selection pretty heartless? Yes. This is pretty mercenary, but I know a parish that has multiple masses a weekend that are often standing-room-only; this parish serves the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor better than any other parish around, but they were given a dollar amount to raise each week in the collection, they’ve fallen short for a long time now, and so they’re slated to close. A parish without enough parishioners, or even with the “wrong” demographic profile of parishioners, faces the same fate. I remember one Wisconsin diocese that figured to have one priest per county by 2035…the priestly situation there has gotten better since I crunched the numbers a dozen years ago…but church closings there are as sure to happen as the sun setting in the west tonight – no matter how healthy the parishes are in terms of money and parishioners. I’m sure being a bishop has its eternal and temporal perks, but dealing with this mess is not one of those perks!

In terms of a priest shortage, I have seen two stopgap measures – that of foreign priests and that of parish administrators. Foreign priests are self-explanatory. Parish administrators are laity, permanent deacons, or religious who are in charge of the governance, religious education, and day-to-day functions of a parish; such a parish often relies, for weekend mass and sacraments, on a diocesan priest who already has a parish of his own…rarely the “rent-a-priest” system is employed. Some bishops believe in foreign priests and parish administrators as a secondary solution, while other bishops do not. The heartburn is that some dioceses have had a lot of turnover in the bishop department and no one knows whether or not to count on a certain level of foreign priests and parish administrators because the next bishop may feel completely differently. For example, Green Bay had six bishops in the twenty-five years from 1983 to 2008 (which includes an auxiliary who was acting bishop for a time). La Crosse isn't far behind in the instability department. Madison, Milwaukee, and Superior have had some episcopal stability.

What happens when parish closures are afoot? One thing I've seen is all kinds of priest transfers throughout a diocese. Closing down a parish is extremely hard on a priest. I assume it’s easier if the priest has barely been there when the process starts.

On the lay side of the equation, the laity sometimes begins an “arms race” with neighboring parishes that rivals the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. For example, one of my aunts lives in an area of Wisconsin that has lots of small towns and no “nucleus” city or hub. As memory serves, four different parishes right around her house spent insane amounts of money to make their church buildings energy-efficient, wheelchair-accessible, and so on – these four buildings didn't need so much as a roof for fifty years by the time they were done. The diocese greenlighted all this spending. The feeling of the parishioners was that if they did all this, they wouldn't be “the one to close.” Shortly thereafter, the diocese combined all four buildings into one parish, and three parish offices and three CCD areas went idle. Just a few years later the diocese decided there could only be one worship site for said parish, but all four churches were too small, so a new church was built out in the middle of nowhere and the four church buildings are now closed.

I think the craziest strategy for staying open that I’ve ever heard of is perpetual debt. The theory goes that parishes worth big money – whether because they’re sitting on prime real estate or else have had generous donors – get closed because dioceses are financially desperate. So if a parish is perpetually in debt, but good for the money, it will never get closed. I do know a Wisconsin parish that is perpetually in debt – I believe around ten loans in the past fifteen years, some approaching a million dollars – and the diocese lets them borrow the money, which gets turned over to the local Catholic school system or something else the diocese likes. In seemingly no time flat, the parish pays off the loan, and takes out another loan in order to subsidize the local Catholic school system yet again. And the faithful there honestly feel as though they’re more secure. And it happens over and over again at this parish.

And to go from the understandable to the crazy to the pathetic: The most pathetic thing I’ve seen is a diocese running what amounted to a competition to stay open. A lot of locales were going from three parishes to one, or else two parishes to one. By the end of this “competition,” people from neighboring parishes weren’t even talking to one another, everyone was furious with the diocese, overall collection money went down considerably, and too many people from closed churches quit going to mass, period. To have parishioners competing with fellow Catholics, begging and groveling to the diocese, children writing letters, and so on led to so much more emotion at the moment and then subsequent bitterness than was necessary. It taxed the priests there to the limit as well.

What’s perhaps the best approach for a diocese when the time comes to close parishes? There’s a diocese near Wisconsin that was so bad at closing parishes that, my understanding is, there was an actual Vatican intervention. My understanding is that they went to the following system and it now has the smoothest, calmest parish closure system I’ve heard of (and then again NO parish closure is calm and smooth): each deanery (i.e. a subset of a diocese, often the size of a county) analyzes each parish and each church building. They look at the cost to run each parish, the condition of the buildings, the location, the projected vibrancy of the community in twenty years, the ability to absorb more parishioners from closed parishes, cost effectiveness to heat and maintain, accessibility, and so on. Then each parish in the deanery is assigned a number, say from one to fourteen. If the diocese is down money, down priests, whatever, then parish fourteen closes for sure and maybe thirteen and twelve also. Parish one is “never” going to close. Anyway people don’t dump all kinds of care and emotion and money into parishes when the writing is on the wall. Are people still upset when the parish is closed, or ranked fourteen of fourteen? Sure. But the predictability, the fact that EVERY parish gets looked at, and the seeming objectivity goes a long way toward healing. Gone were the crass statements from diocesan officials and frustrated priests about how “everyone” drives twenty minutes to the grocery store, how two different ethnicities had two nearby parishes, and all the other half-true stuff people seem to say that just makes hurting people hurt worse. People make it through all those Kubler-Ross steps – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – and they often do so with their Catholic faith intact. Is it a good thing? No. It may be the least bad though.

What have I seen when a parish closure is announced? Many people lose it and shed all veneer of Christianity. Well besides the obvious, what have I seen? In all five dioceses of Wisconsin, there seems to be an unwritten rule that the parish that is to absorb the parishioners from the closed parish(es) has to be renamed. Unless you live in utter isolation or are not from Wisconsin, you know that already. Saint Someone-Who-Was-Taken-Off-The-General-Roman-Calendar-Decades-Ago becomes the parish of Saint-Someone-Canonized-This-Year.

The other thing of note that I’ve seen at a parish in the Superior Diocese and at a parish in the Madison Diocese is a printed prayer/promise to be read before the closing hymn. The gist of it is along the lines of, “We the Catholic community of [city], promise to accept change in the Church and our local community in a spirit of grace. We will cooperate with everyone during this difficult period. We will pray for our priest, Father [name], throughout the week, as this is a difficult situation. We promise to turn to prayer and the sacraments instead of devouring one another. Amen.” Of course the prayers were written much better than that. I don’t know how I feel about such prayers though. For one thing, a person is caught off-guard by the printed prayers in each pew and all of a sudden one is promising in church and in front of the Blessed Sacrament to act a certain way. After suffering a tremendous loss, too much venting is bad and no venting is ALSO bad, even if it makes the priest’s life easier. I think it can be okay to be upset, as long as one doesn’t stay there. Could the assembly instead read a list of suggestions on what to do (besides being a vocal and dysfunctional pain), and NOT make a prayer nor a promise out of it?

What have I seen after a parish is closed? The first mass of the combined parishes usually involves the priest saying something like, “I talk to people all the time whose great-great grandparents came over from [European country] and helped to found a parish and were there at the very first mass. You are here at the very first mass of this new parish. This only happens every several generations. What a privilege. WHAT A PRIVILEGE! Please take the next three minutes to walk around and introduce yourself to people you don’t know, and tell them you’re GLAD they’re here worshiping with you this morning!” And the priest launches into the significance of the new name of the parish, how glad he is that this is over, and how we all are a new family. In a couple months the priest always seems to get transferred. I don’t wish to be glib; I’m just relating what seems to happen.

Usually the parish staff has been cut. The would-have-been-unemployed are almost invariably taken care of via the Catholic networking from the old and new parish. They often find better hours, fewer hours, and better pay working somewhere other than church work (my experience anyway). People shower them with empathy.

Church dissidents seem to swoop into a diocese at times of numerous parish closures, and push an agenda for married priests and women priests. I myself am fine with Church teaching and this isn’t a fight I’m involved with, I’m just saying it often seems to happen.

One last thing I often see after a parish is closed is that the school, the convent, the church, and the outbuildings just seem to sit empty in perpetuity – forty years and counting even. Part of the dynamic could be that people will be upset all over again if the actual building is torn down. It could be that cash-strapped dioceses figure it costs less to mow the lawn and clear the sidewalk of snow than to do a full-scale asbestos abatement job. And because these places are Church property, they don’t cost the diocese any property taxes. Most of these places aren’t heated and are in terrible shape due to the freezing and thawing cycle in our fully-humid, continental climate. I remember several people telling me about a demolition job of a 35-year vacant Catholic school some years back; the excavator barely grazed the brick wall on the first pass and two stories of bricks collapsed all at once, to the shock of both the demolition crew and the bystanders. Most old churches in Wisconsin are plaster; I’ve heard plaster ceilings do worse than brick walls in temperature fluctuations. I’ve seen a number of churches become oratories with masses offered once or twice a year…the thing is that to keep the church safe for occupants, people have to sink money into heating, and time and dollars into maintenance. The creation of an oratory is a bishop’s call though.

A final personal note without much of a transition: My grandfather was the central figure in my life for my first thirty years. He taught me right from wrong. We gardened together. He was a tremendous example to me. Gentle and stoic, yet firm and hard-working. We went to mass together and sat in the same spot in the back left pews of our parish church. It was a privilege to take him to see elderly relatives and on errands the last couple years of his life. He died very soon after I got married. I can still see him there at my wedding, so determined to make it through my wedding mass, so extremely ill, so determined to finish “the race” strong before meeting His Maker…he knew he had two years left at most. He’s been gone over a decade now. The Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart that he and my grandmother got as a wedding present from his parents are up in my living room.

When I go back “home” it’s hard to “feel” him, hard to remember him anymore. The old homestead is razed and the garden gone. The places I associate with him are gone too, or unrecognizable at any rate. The only place I can go and really smile and remember my grandfather is my old church. The smells, the sounds, the reredos that is a feast for the eyes, and so on. “Our” old church no longer a parish, now it’s just a worship site with an assembly that is a wispy ghost of its former self…I know the end is near for the building itself some year soon, and that makes me sad.

Summary. There’s really nothing to summarize here. Parish and church closures are tough, period. May God be with us.

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