Boston's Parishes May Become Branch Offices

The Archdiocese of Boston is taking a business approach to its problem of too many parishes, too few priests and not enough parishioners. It plans to merge parishes into clusters and placing them under one pastor. It will eliminate dozens of parish jobs for lay people and take away local control of a church's budget and religious education program. The plan is being met with considerable pushback from priests and parishioners. Monica Brady-Myerov of member station WBUR reports.

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Fewer and fewer Roman Catholic Churches in the Boston area will have their own neighborhood parish priest over the next couple of years. The Archdiocese of Boston is proposing to cluster parishes together to share priests and staff members. Now the church says this plan will avoid closing more churches, a painful and controversial process.

But as Monica Brady-Myerov from member station WBUR in Boston reports, the proposal is being met with skepticism.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV, BYLINE: Here's the broad outline - the Boston Archdiocese wants to regroup 290 parishes into 125 collaboratives. You might call them super parishes. The super parish will have a pastoral service team, headed by a pastor with additional priests and a business manager. The cluster of two to four churches will also include a religious education director, a music director and jobs that currently are filled in individual parishes.

MONSIGNOR WILLIAM FAY: We made this proposal looking at the fact that this is already happening, it's going to continue to happen.

BRADY-MYEROV: Monsignor William Fay, co-chair of the Archdiocesan Planning Commission, says over the past couple of years it's already combined nearly 50 parishes into clusters.

FAY: The alternative would be that we look at merging of parishes and closing some of them, which was not a direction that we wanted to go in.

BRADY-MYEROV: Fay says this is only a proposal. Following the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the archdiocese paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits and saw mass attendance drop. Fewer than 16 percent of those who say they are Catholic attend church regularly. It's also struggling with a declining number of priests and changes in demographics. The archdiocese says this grouping plan will strengthen parishes and attract more churchgoers.

Father Ahern.

FATHER JACK AHERN: Welcome to (unintelligible).

BRADY-MYEROV: Hi. So nice to meet you.

Father Jack Ahern oversees three churches in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston. Ahern is 58 and rarely sits still. He says it can be chaotic jumping around to deliver mass and manage three churches but he's committed to making it work.

AHERN: As difficult as it is to maintain the three parishes, the fact that when I came in the cardinal says it's, you know, we're not closing parishes. We've given some stability to it, the people, you know, they're not wondering if the next shoe is going to drop.

BRADY-MYEROV: But this plan isn't reassuring to everyone. Many priests are against clustering, according to one who wanted to remain anonymous. He says they wonder why the Archdiocese needs to force this across the board when it's already happening gradually. Many parishioners are upset that it will take away local control.

PETER BORRE: What the Archdiocese of Boston seems hell bent on doing is destroying churches to save the archdiocese.

BRADY-MYEROV: Peter Borre is with the Council of Parishes, a group of lay Catholics occupying churches the archdiocese wants to sell. Borre says clustering is really the first step toward closing more churches.

In 2004, the Boston Archdiocese shut and sold nearly a quarter of its churches. Borre says in places like Boston, the same parish priest often baptizes, marries and buries family members over generations.

BORRE: Part of the Catholic experience tends to be an individual experience, not lost in a crowd, as part of a local community of people that you know.

BRADY-MYEROV: Under the proposal, priests would have to resign and be assigned to a new church. And nearly 3,000 lay employees, such as church secretaries, will have to reapply to be part of a parish cluster. Many could lose their jobs.

Still, the clustering idea appeals to some parishioners, who see it as necessary for the church to thrive again.

Miriam Thorne has attended St. Theresa's for 62 years.

MIRIAM THORNE: I would have no problem with it. It probably would be to our advantage because, as a whole, the more people that worship in one church, probably the better it is.

BRADY-MYEROV: Several other dioceses around the country are reorganizing. Detroit is planning to close some churches and merge others. It's an indication that the Boston Archdiocese is not alone in making bold changes to confront the problems of empty pews, priest shortages and insolvent parishes.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov, in Boston.

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