Oshkosh Hermit answers, What to do when faced with a parish merger?

After his first column, I had someone ask for advice while in the process of going through a parish closure merger.  I again invoked the assistance of the Oshkosh Hermit for some insight.  I didn't highlight but OH is one of the most quotable men I know.

I am saddened by your loss. It’s like losing a family member to have a parish church close. I prayed a rosary last night for you and your community. It’s a tough situation. My heart goes out to you – sincerely.

I have some bad news, but you probably knew it already. No, there is nothing you can do. Ouch. I’m sorry.

We hold none of the cards

When I was in the military, I was responsible to my troops under me and responsible to my superiors over me. It was certainly an unequal situation, but if I were incompetent enough or despicable enough, my subordinates could have had me in a wringer in short order. Breaking a law? Breaking a regulation? It doesn't take that much – low troop performance, low troop morale, and sundry other things could have gotten me fired as platoon commander, and I’d have been another senior enlisted guy checking out basketballs at the base gym until retirement.

Unlike the military, however, the Catholic Church is an almost-purely top-down organization. This is a gross oversimplification, but for our purposes: The pope can do just about anything he wants. The bishops, in turn, can do just about anything they wish in their dioceses. Unlike the pope, bishops are not free to break canon law, but that’s about it (though in practice, I concede, many bishops do get away with breaking canon law). I believe there are several thousand bishops in the Catholic Church today – retired, auxiliary, in charge of a diocese, in the diplomatic corps, at the Holy See, and so on; a bishop getting dismissed (or resigning before a dismissal) is an international headline in the Catholic press and only happens a few times a year. When it does happen, I all but guarantee it has NOTHING to do with buildings, with priest transfers, with financial mismanagement, with generating ill will in the faithful of a diocese, et cetera.

What about prayer? Well do popes and bishops – and the two of us for that matter – answer to God? Sure. But popes and bishops (and the two of us) get unlimited free will and vast volumes of patience on God’s part. Prayer generally only works when it’s God’s will and when the people involved are willing to listen to the Holy Spirit.

What can you do?

Don’t do a thing if it will cause you to lose charity, to lose sight of the Eternal Church you wrote of. I’ve seen people go SO bananas over this stuff, they quit on God and God’s Church. Know your limits, stay prayed up to stay in touch with God, and stay grounded with a core group of like-minded people who pray for one another. If you don’t do those things, the Devil will almost certainly make short work of you. I’m not talking about eternal destinations here, I’m talking about being left spiritually bruised, battered, and limp on the side of the road, so to speak.

If you think you have the emotional and spiritual capital to make it through the “planning” meetings, these are some suggestions I have off the top of my head:

Have an informal meeting of like-minded people before the diocesan people meet with you. Nothing is easier to “shut down” than ONE person who keeps doing the talking and asking questions. You need more than one person to speak up at the meetings.

Spend an entire hour in prayer before a meeting. You’re worshiping our Lord. You’re also asking the Holy Spirit to put His words in your mouth, and His hand on the situation. You’re in a position of weakness because the bishop and the diocese can basically do whatever they wish, but remember the words of Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” These words are followed by Saint Paul: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” [II Corinthians 12:9-10]

If there’s a cemetery involved, ask what’s going to happen with it while Bishop is the bishop and then after he is gone. The diocesan reps may well be dismissive and tell you that it all happens according to such-and-such a diocesan policy. “Trust us.” (Why?) Tell them to spell the policy out, or better yet, give you something in writing on the policy. Your relatives are awaiting the “resurrection of the body” there.

Ask how much money is in the three parishes’ bank accounts. To the best of my understanding, each parish in Wisconsin, by state law, is required to have an elected trustee. That trustee should be able to tell you to the penny how much money is in each parish bank account. Ask where the money is going (and it should be going to the new parish). Ask them to put it in the bulletin: the amount of money and where it’s going. That way it’s in writing.

Ask what is happening to the art and heirloom items within the church buildings. Often dioceses do some kind of a silent auction and all the already privileged and rich get all the “plum” goods while peasants like the two of us get nothing. Other times, they’ll consign all the material goods to a place like Stemper’s in Milwaukee or some other place that sells old religious artwork and goods. (I like Stemper’s by the way; I’m just using them as an example.) Maybe all the active families in the parish should get one thing free in a random drawing. Hanging up station 9 of the Stations of the Cross in your home may not be something you’ve always dreamt of, but at least you’ll have some connection to the past, to your relatives who have gone on before you.

Realize these church building committees are pretty much run by people who don’t like the traditional church design of the past thousand-plus years – that is, the rectangle with the altar up some steps at one end. Elevators are an expensive no-no in new church design; a new church will undoubtedly be all on one level for accessibility and cost reasons. I haven’t been to in over a decade; I cannot remember what the church there looks like. A new church building will look nothing like the one in I surmise. This is a battle you just won’t win. Our parents’ generation wants “hope and change.” The people of our generation who go to church want “results and stability.” There is something ancient and timeless about our faith that younger folks want; older folks want everything new and in flux…which is a paradox, I must admit.

What you JUST, MIGHT, PERHAPS, MAYBE, POSSIBLY be able to persuade the powers-that-be is to get a small daily mass chapel in the shape of a rectangle with an altar at one end (at the new church building). You might be able to get a coherent collection of elements/furnishings from the three traditional church buildings to adorn the space. Call it a heritage chapel or something. Have the three oldest photos of each closed church building on the wall just as you walk in. When the diocesan people tell you that you cannot do it, ask if they will consent for one of the trustees (or the head of a parish council) to ask the architect. The diocesan people will not like this – they may play ball, they may not. If they tell you it’s against canon law or Vatican II, they’re being dishonest. You can ask to see it in writing…but chances are, if it gets to this point…it will get ugly and you won’t win anyway. There are daily mass/small mass chapels all across Wisconsin, including in new churches. You have three church buildings, ergo you have three altars, three tabernacles, three ciboria (holds the Blessed Sacrament), and plenty of pews. It is no problem for a priest or sacristan to move the Blessed Sacrament from the one tabernacle to the other before mass, to put a lit candle into a tabernacle lamp, and to conceal or extinguish the other tabernacle lamp. I’ve done it myself; it can be done without going through hundreds of dollars’ worth of beeswax candles. Is such a chapel a big expense? In the long run, no. You’re heating a tiny area with a low ceiling in comparison to heating an entire huge church building for every daily mass over many decades.

Another thing to be aware of is that Church progressives, like progressives everywhere, crave consensus. (Conservatives crave having the “other” side in the room and then “winning” – I have no idea why. To use a secular example, MSNBC almost never has the opponent in the room; Fox News almost always has the opponent in the room.)

Tactic 1 of consensus people: They may launch into a 20-minute answer for every question you ask and then ask if you now agree. This does two things: the other people at the meeting will glare at you until you don’t ask any more questions – ever, and if you’re not thinking, you may say – on the spur of the moment – that you agree. Simply say, “I guess we agree to disagree.” They may say something snotty back to you like, “Well, I guess you disagree with the Church then.” But the truth is you’re not disagreeing with the Church at all – just THEIR idea of Church.

Tactic 2 of consensus people: They’re often sure to stack the deck with yes-men and yes-women. They may try to keep people like you out of the meetings and off the committees.

Tactic 3 of consensus people: Death by meeting. They’ll keep having pointless meeting after pointless meeting until you lose the will to live and have to skip one in order to maintain a job. If they are true consensus people, they will continue to have meetings until they find that one meeting (and meeting time) when no opposition is mustered any longer.

What can you do about consensus people? Call them on it. Say something like, “Look, I’m not an obstructionist. I know change is inevitable. We’re never going to agree on everything and that’s fine. I do represent the feelings of a lot of people who deserve to be heard. In the end I accept the fact that Bishop makes the final decisions.”

Even if I won’t lose my head and I won’t lose my faith, why bother when the parish church is going to close anyway and the potential “victories” are seemingly so small?

Well, whether or not you bother is up to you. I think when I fought this kind of stuff my feeling was that I owed it to six generations of poor people who sacrificed immensely to put that building up. I felt like I owed it to generations of my own family who made my parish a “home.” I wasn’t going to let it all go without at least saying something.

And if it closes anyway, well, what then? Well, you’re a FREE Catholic! In , you’re in between and and have a lot of churches and a lot of priests from which to choose and be guided by the Holy Spirit. I cannot tell you the relief I have had from not feeling obligated to attend Father Communist’s mass or Father Boring’s mass, simply because they’re the closest priests to where I live and I want their parish churches to stay open. I don’t have to go to a church building with an antiphonal (stadium) layout and then watch little Jimmie pick his nose straight across the church building from me for an entire mass. I can support good churches and good priests. Certainly join a parish, but you don’t ever have to go to mass there. I personally have been emancipated!

In fairness to bishops, I reiterate the problems actually driving the parish closures

We must admit it: the Catholic Church in Wisconsin is in a terrible bind, both financially and personnel-wise. I don’t think there is a solution other than massive parish closures. I myself would have guessed that our subsidized private education system would have been the first to go and THEN the parishes, but the present priest shortage moved the parishes to the head of the list.

Matt (whose blog this is) is a quality human being[editor note: that point is disputed]; Badger Catholic is a quality work of love. Why did it take two years and being asked four times before I wrote that article on church closures in Wisconsin? It’s DEPRESSING to analyze a problem with no solution other than the least-bad one that’s being implemented across the five dioceses of the state. Being on the H.M.S. Titanic sucks. Maybe someone will make a movie on this 90 years from now when we’re all dead. Maybe the diocesan spin-masters will convince some that fifteen lifeboats in the water means we still have a navy. I don’t know.

This is what I do know. The Old Guard (born 1930s and 40s) and the Vatican II generation (born 1950s and 60s) rule the roost. They have overwhelming numbers among those who attend mass. They give the overwhelming share of the money. They have the overwhelming share of the episcopal sees and the Roman collars. When they die or become quite elderly, it will create an overwhelming vacuum in finances and personnel in Wisconsin’s Catholic Church.

Generation X (myself), Generation Y (yourself?), and the Millennials (my kids) aren’t going to be able to keep more than a couple hundred parishes open in Wisconsin. Forget about a priest shortage – we don’t give money like our parents and grandparents! Why?

Reason 1: we don’t have the money. Period. Go to college and be in student-loan debt for 20 years. Or don’t go to college and never make more than $25,000 a year. Rent a decent place for a family for $1000 a month. Or buy a place for $1000 a month on a 30-year mortgage. Even if we managed
money like misers and financial planners (who of us does?), we still would be strapped for cash.

Reason 2: I don’t care how the dioceses do their math, there are fewer church-going, envelope-filling Catholics our age – a LOT fewer, in fact.

Reason 3: our generations were taught that it was legalism to pay a certain amount in the plate. Call it tithing, a precept of the Church, pew rent even – we haven’t heard those terms. Instead we hear big, fuzzy catchwords like stewardship that don’t touch us, don’t move our souls to sacrificial charity. Many our age put $200 in the collection once a year and think it’s quite generous. Fifty families our age do that and it amounts to $10,000 in an entire year. I've heard of one church having a heat bill that was more $10,000 just for the month of January.

Reason 4: Way off in our distant future, we ourselves will spend several years in assisted living and nursing home care. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes will get all of our money. I don’t fault nursing homes; they need to cover their costs. But gone will be the days when a significant number of people leave behind decent amounts of money to the Church as they go to meet their Maker.


I’m sure nothing in here has actually salved any of your wounds. But please now I thought about you, your plight, our plight and took some time for you. May God really, truly, and actually bless you for being faithful to the Faith even when it’s difficult.


  1. There is a lot of harsh reality in this. Some Key points:
    1. Matt is a quality human being and his motives are good. I do not always agree with his conservative approach but believe we are on the same side.
    2. Catholic Schools are very expensive. I serve on a parish council in Dubuque, IA. We are down to one Catholic School System for the whole city (three physical grade school locations) and still about 75% of a parish's budget goes to the school system.
    3. We all need to look at our personal finances and back a reasonable amount. The example given of a familiy giving $200.00 per year is really out of touch with current reality. If people would look at giving 5% of their gross income to charity and half of that to their church it would be a good start.
    4. We have had some bad leadership in the church that has chased numerous people away. A good example of this is the situation at St. Mary's church in Platteville.

  2. Thanks Oshkosh Hermit for the advice, information, and most importantly, prayers. There are many people who attend my "site" that feel the way I do about this situation. It has been mentioned that in the new church a hall or room will be dedicated to the memory of our three churches. Again, thanks.


    P.S. I also got some hope by the possibility of at least getting one of the stations of the cross (fingers crossed for 4th) or any other piece of sacred art from the church.


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