Parish closures, consolidations expected as part of Chicago Archdiocese restructuring plan

A number of suburban parishes in Cook and Lake counties are expected to be shuttered as part of a massive restructuring plan from the Chicago Archdiocese.

But the plan, closely guarded by members of the clergy in recent months and still in its early stages, isn't solely a matter of simple math, Archdiocese Chief Operating Officer Betsy Bohlen told the Daily Herald Friday. She said parishes could see their current configurations changed in different ways — by consolidating parishes, by sharing a pastor or by having several churches come together under one umbrella organization.

“There won't be a plain vanilla approach to all parishes,” Bohlen said.

A recent analysis of archdiocese data found an expected shortage of priests in the coming years — as few as 240 priests by 2030 available to serve as pastors for 351 parishes.

Archbishop Blase Cupich wrote in his column in the Archdiocese newspaper, The Catholic New World, that “demographics have shifted dramatically. Some of our parish buildings are in disrepair. We have fewer priests. ... The result is that we end up spreading our resources too thinly.”

He said area Catholics would be hearing more about the plan.

“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,” Cupich said. He framed the changes as a season “that is not simply of loss, but rather of renewal.”

The reorganization process, according to suburban pastors, began several months ago with Cupich consulting with area pastors.

“It's been quiet so you wouldn't find out, and it was just the beginning, with an idea stage,” said the Rev. Dan Whiteside, pastor at St. Mary in Buffalo Grove. “The priests have met as a body a few times, three times or so now.”

Starting last week, auxiliary bishops — regional leaders within the archdiocese — began meeting with parish staff members as well as members of the laity, Bohlen said. That's expected to continue over the coming weeks.

Whiteside, a priest for 23 years, says his workload has grown as fewer priests have become available. St. Mary, which has roughly 2,800 parishioners, is run by one full-time priest and two retired priests, he said.

Staffing isn't uniform, Pastor Curt Lambert of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Prospect Heights told parishioners in a recent weekly bulletin.

“More and more parishes are like our own with one priest,” he wrote. “When parishioners ask me why we do not have an associate pastor, the simple answer is that there are fewer and fewer priests to serve.”

In addition to parish consolidations, Bohlen said the restructuring plan includes a focus on “improving parish vitality” by combining ministries of nearby churches, such as young adult or bereavement ministries.

Bohlen said the archdiocese does not have a timetable for putting the plan into place.

The archdiocese's last large-scale closure and consolidation took place in the 1990s, under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a process that left priests and parishioners shocked by the rapidity. This consolidation is expected to be handled differently.

“Archbishop Cupich wisely wants to be proactive,” Lambert said. “But he does not desire a haphazard rush to close parishes.”

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  Archbishop Blase Cupich greets other clergy members in the lobby of St. Edna Church in Arlington Heights last summer. The archbishop has announced a restructuring plan for the archdiocese which is expected to include closures of a number of its current 351 parishes. John Starks/
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