Suburban parishes in Cook, Lake counties begin work to consolidate services
Mergers, shared services on the table as Chicago archdiocese tells churches to plan for downsizing
With a shortage of priests, changing habits of parishioners, and a long list of churches and schools in need of repair, Archdiocese of Chicago officials say they knew it was time for a radical overhaul.
But putting into motion a new plan to consolidate and revitalize parishes across Cook and Lake counties is no easy task. Many of the 2.2 million Catholics across the region view their churches as a constant in their lives, one that's entwined with their families in some cases for generations.
A sobering lesson: The archdiocese's last large-scale church closure and consolidation in the 1990s under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was completed with efficiency in mind, leaving priests and parishioners shocked by the rapid changes.
This time, Cardinal Blase Cupich said, things need to be handled differently.
"We've done a lot of messaging," he said. "We don't want to view this as parish consolidation, but to make sure they're vibrant in the long term."
Archdiocese officials gave the Daily Herald an exclusive look into the closely guarded plan, an effort they call Renew My Church that has divided the 346 parishes into 97 groups. Those clusters of two to 10 parishes, determined through geography, size and other factors, such as the schools feeding into a high school, have begun work in recent weeks to determine how to maximize their collective resources.
In addition to the possibility of closing or consolidating some churches, the restructuring plan includes a focus on "improving parish vitality" by combining ministries of nearby churches, such as young adult or bereavement ministries.
In the suburbs, one group includes St. Alphonsus Liguori in Prospect Heights, St. Thomas Becket and St. Emily in Mount Prospect, St. Joseph the Worker in Wheeling and St. Paul Chong Ha Sang Korean Mission in Des Plaines.
Another group includes St. Edna, Our Lady of the Wayside and St. James in Arlington Heights, along with St. Mary in Buffalo Grove.
In the Barrington area, two large parishes -- St. Anne and Holy Family -- are grouped together.
The archdiocese isn't ready to say which parishes will close.
But two groupings, one along the North Shore and another on Chicago's West Side -- are serving as pilot projects. They are beginning to work together this spring, starting with multiparish meetings to discuss needs. Archdiocese Chief Operating Officer Betsy Bohlen says several other groupings will begin discussing consolidation efforts this fall, with the rest to be rolled out over the next three years. The whole process could take as long as five years from start to finish.
One impetus is a recent analysis of archdiocese data that predicts a shortage of pastors, with as few as 240 priests by 2030 available to serve as pastors, down from 340 pastors serving at 346 parishes today.
Archdiocese officials estimate that about 1,700 Masses take place across the archdiocese every week. That's roughtly five masses per pastor, all of which manage a host of other duties, too. Pastors' workloads would increase by 2030 to about seven Masses apiece each week -- if changes don't take place.
"That's a hard constraint," Bohlen said. "But there are actually lots of degrees of freedom in terms of how to manage around that."
That means some parishes will close. Others will have one pastor overseeing multiple churches.
"We don't have the answer only because each of the groupings is going to look at their situation, whether they can afford their infrastructure, and then report back to the archdiocese. By the end, it will be a bit top down and bottom up," she said.
The North Shore pilot project includes Saints Faith, Hope and Charity and Sacred Heart in Winnetka, St. Francis Xavier and St. Joseph in Wilmette, and St. Philip the Apostle in Northfield.
Archdiocese officials say it was selected in part because the churches' challenges -- and strengths -- are similar to those seen across Cook and Lake counties.
So far, the group has held one multiparish meeting. The Rev. Marty O'Donovan of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity said it mostly "involved prayer and the discussion of what makes a vital parish."
Bob Berner, a Winnetka resident and member of Sacred Heart, said parishioners have been asked to fill out surveys that asked what the church does well and what it can improve upon.
As Cupich has stressed, the message is centered around finding efficiencies, not church closures, Berner said.
O'Donovan says that by July, the five churches need to submit recommendations on how to share resources to the archdiocese, which will evaluate them and then come back with some decisions by the fall.
O'Donovan says he's tried to tell parishioners the process "is a question of looking at the church reorganizing, because our numbers are not growing. We have to be part of a larger church and look at what's best for all. (I tell them), will it result in any structural changes? I don't know."
Still, he says, "there's not a lot of clarity to the message. People like to think in concrete terms."
Archdiocese numbers show that in the mid-1960s, shortly after the Second Vatican Council modernized church practices, the Catholic population in Cook and Lake counties swelled to a high of 2.5 million people. That number has dropped by 300,000 in the last 50 years, declining by more than 100,000 parishioners in the last decade alone. Archdiocese schools have seen a drop in pupils from 189,701 students in 1980 to 79,460 students today.
Overall, parish and school operations have been in the red every year since 2000, financial reports show.
While the effort is not simply about parish closures, O'Donovan says, "people tend to reduce things to the lowest common denominator."
Some Northwest suburban parishes think their efforts will be easier thanks to pre-emptive actions they've taken in recent years.
The Rev. Rich Yanos, pastor of St. Edna in Arlington Heights, says the village's three parishes have long been sharing some services.
For years, pastors have been getting together monthly for a meeting and dinner. The churches organize Lenten and Advent reconciliation services together, as well as joint parish classes for adults interested in becoming Catholics.
"Our pastors have had the foresight to anticipate some of these needs," he said.
Yanos, a priest for 30 years, believes people are less tied to their parishes than in the past.
"I grew up in an era where your parish was your parish," he said. "Today that's not the case. Today it's about convenience."
St. Edna features a 5:30 p.m. Sunday Mass where, Yanos says, "many times, when you look out at the crowd, many of them are not your own. It's just what time is better."
The Rev. Jim Presta, pastor of St. Emily in Mount Prospect, said among the challenges is finding a way to engage younger families to join ministries like women's club and usher groups that used to be popular but now lack members.
"The older people don't feel the younger people are taking their places in the stuff that they do," he said.
Sharing the news of the consolidation process, Presta said he has focused on "looking at our neighboring parishes in terms of personnel, administration. How can we consolidate, work together and make our youth ministries better?"
While he says he's largely going to wait for more directives from the archdiocese, he will start meeting with the other pastors in his grouping more regularly.
"One of the parish priests, (the Rev.) Francis Xavier (Rayappan) from St. Joseph the Worker, actually showed up at the door unannounced today. He said, 'I'm here on behalf of my pastor. We should start getting to know each other.' I thought that was great," Presta said.