As the Diocese of Belleville copes with a shortage of priests and declining church attendance, it will be up to individual parishes to formulate a plan for the future with guidance from diocesan officials.
“The fewer parishes that close the better,” Bishop Edward Braxton said during an interview at his Belleville residence on Thursday.
Braxton emphasized the diocese will not be making any sweeping decisions but will assist parishes through the process as it’s been doing the last several years.
“We want them to have a basic model of what we will do looking at the realities of the diocese where the Catholic population is ... generally growing older and smaller and that’s spread over a large area and the fact that so many churches have been built so close together and the number of priests reaching retirement continues to grow larger ... given those facts, what will you do when there’s only one priest,” he said.
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Braxton introduced the “Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring” in August 2011 and plans to meet with parish partnerships — the leadership of the parishes working together — over the next several months as part of the next step.
“The Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring is not a decree, already laid out in detail: ‘This is going to happen to this many parishes by this date,’” he said. “It’s an organic process that can go on for years.”
Braxton described the restructuring plan as “gradual, careful, slow, dynamic (and) organic,” with the least amount of disruption to the churches.
“The fact that it’s gradual and dynamic does not mean it’s not happening,” he said. “Eventually every parish in the diocese will be impacted by the pastoral plan.”
The reality, he said, is that the diocese has more churches than it needs; the Catholic school population is getting smaller; and priests are getting older.
“We are looking at a way of adapting to realities in a pastorally sensitive way that shows a concern for the people and for the priests and for the future,” Braxton said.
The parish partnerships will meet with the vicar general, the Rev. John McEvilly, who was the chairman of the committee of the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring, and the appropriate vicar forane, who oversees a particular region of the diocese.
Braxton said they will discuss where the partnership is in developing their strategic pastoral model. “All the parishes have been asked to say look at your parish situation — you’re united with one parish or two parishes or three parishes — develop a model,” he said.
For example, if there are two parishes served by two priests, what’s going to happen when one of those priests retires?
“Should one priest serve as pastor of two parishes, should the one priest bring the parishes together in many ways, have one parish council ... or should the two parishes merge, keeping one of the churches as a chapel, or should one of the churches be closed and be simply one church?” Braxton said. “These models are meant to be developed not because they are going to be implemented today or tomorrow, but when that circumstance happens. As long as there’s a priest available, they won’t be implemented.”
The next meetings, Braxton said, will not result in “some dramatic news. It’s just to encourage them in the ongoing process. They are going to leave the meetings with encouragement and suggestions from us, with us hearing what they are doing and us hearing what difficulties they face.”
We are looking at a way of adapting to realities in a pastorally sensitive way that shows a concern for the people and for the the priests and for the future.
Edward Braxton, bishop of the Diocese of Belleville
Several parishes in the Diocese of Belleville, which has more than 100 churches, have already made significant changes in accordance with the idea behind the pastoral plan. For example, Braxton said, St. Leo in Modoc has closed and parishioners now attend St. Joseph Parish in Prairie du Rocher.
“This is not always an easy process,” he said. “Certainly, there are people at the former St. Leo Parish who would have liked to keep the small, older church open, but we went through a process and it was generally approved that this was the best way to go.”
Another example is the closing of Immaculate Conception in Bridgeport and St. Francis Xavier Parish in St. Francisville. This decision was made through a “careful and gradual process,” Braxton said, which was not always “pleasant.” Families at those parishes now attend St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceville.
Two other parishes — St. Mary Parish in Mound City and St. Catherine in Grand Chain — were also closed through another gradual process, which included personal meetings with Braxton.
He said the boundaries of St. Patrick Parish in Cairo have been redrawn to incorporate St. Mary Parish and St. Catherine.
More recently, Braxton said, three parishes have formed a partnership — St. Mary Parish in Sesser, St. Andrew Parish in Christopher and St. Joseph Parish in Benton.
“No change is mandated. This is not a difficult decision we are forcing on them,” Braxton said. “We want them to look at the reality, and you tell us what’s possible and we will tell you what we think you ought to be giving consideration to gradually.”
In Gallatin County, located in the southeastern corner of Illinois, four churches were combined into one. Braxton said after St. Joseph in Ridgway was destroyed by a tornado, the decision was made to build a brand new church at that site, which he named St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Its partner parishes St. Patrick in Pond Settlement, St. Joseph in Equality and St. Mary in Shawneetown now all currently serve as chapels, which can be used occasionally, according to the bishop.
“Over time, it may emerge that keeping them as chapels is not necessary,” Braxton said, “but that’s not decided.”
Another example of a church that has become a chapel is Immaculate Conception Church in East St. Louis, which is within the boundaries of St. Augustine of Hippo in East St. Louis.
The decisions regarding the future of Catholic churches, Braxton said, is “very much influenced by the population and the number of Catholics that we have” and the number of priests.
If in the future, the diocese suddenly has five priest ordinations per year, that might mean some of the churches in the diocese might be able to stay open longer, he said.
“But it’s not just the priests, it’s the people,” he said. “Parishes in part close because of the shortage of people. Catholics in one era — 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s — 95 percent of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday. Large numbers gave time and talent and treasure to the church. Now in the United States in some areas, 40 percent or less attend Mass every Sunday.”
40 percent of Catholics attend Mass every Sunday in some areas of the United States, bishop says
Braxton said Catholics in the United States have been spoiled with the ratio of priests to parishioners. In Bolivia, he said he knows a priest who serves 100,000 people at one church.
What will happen to the church buildings of churches that have been closed?
“Different decisions are made about the disposition of buildings,” Braxton said, noting sometimes they are sold or torn down. “That’s a very careful process in itself.”
Effective Jan. 1, the bishop revised the diocese’s deed restrictions for the sale of churches, which outline what the purchaser may not house in the former church. The restrictions state the building may not be used as a place of business for human abortion; pornographic books; massages or tattoos; tavern, bar, nightclub, dance club or adult club; or live performances directed to an adult audience.
Impact on Catholic schools
The schools are a “very sensitive issue,” according to the bishop.
With the decrease in the number of Catholic school children in the diocese, Catholic churches are now running two types of Catholic schools — the traditional school and the Parish School of Religion for public school children, which often meets once or twice a week.
“In some cases, the number of students who are Catholic coming to the Parish School of Religion is larger than the number of students in the Catholic school,” Braxton said, “but the Catholic school is costing more than the Parish School of Religion.”
Some parishes may use a majority of their income to maintain their school, he said. “Inevitably, parishes must look at how much of their income is going to their school, how much the school population is declining, how much the population of the Parish School of Religion is increasing and what must be the long-term investment.”
In Belleville, Cathedral School and St. Mary-St. Augustine School joined forces to become Notre Dame Academy with different campuses. “That was something that was proposed by the school leadership...as a way to keep the educational ministry going but not two separate K through eighth-grade schools,” Braxton said. “So far it has worked well. That model may be helpful in other cases.”
It’s enabled us to do a lot of activities that really enhance their education. Our focus here is really on reading and math — the basic fundamentals.
Sandy Baechle, principal of St. Augustine campus, on the formation of Notre Dame Academy
Sandy Baechle, principal of the St. Augustine campus, said the model has allowed St. Augustine to focus primarily on the younger children — preschool to fourth grade.
“It’s enabled us to do a lot of activities that really enhance their education,” she said. “Our focus here is really on reading and math — the basic fundamentals.”
Linda Hobbs, principal of the Cathedral campus, said the new structure has allowed the school, which serves grades 5-8, to offer new opportunities for its students, including elective classes and community engagement with elderly residents at the nearby Cottages at Cathedral Square.
Every Catholic school has to address the fact that there’s a minimum number of students needed to maintain a school, according to Braxton. “Can a school be an effective educational community with 12 children?” he asked.
In some ways, Braxton said, restructuring the Catholic schools may be more complicated than the churches themselves. “Each case must be looked at in a slow and gradual way,” he said.
Examples of parishes that have restructured in accordance with the pastoral plan:
- St. Leo in Modoc has closed, and parishioners now attend St. Joseph Parish in Prairie du Rocher
- Immaculate Conception in Bridgeport and St. Francis Xavier Parish in St. Francisville were closed, and those parishioners now attend St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceville.
- St. Mary Parish in Mound City and St. Catherine in Grand Chain have been closed, and parishioners now attend St. Patrick Parish in Cairo.
- St. Joseph in Ridgway, St. Patrick in Pond Settlement, St. Joseph in Equality and St. Mary in Shawneetown were all closed, and a new church — St. Kateri Tekakwitha — was built.
- Immaculate Conception Church in East St. Louis was closed and is now a chapel within the boundaries of St. Augustine of Hippo in East St. Louis.