Why have some mergers in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh been smooth and others painful?

Six years into the diocese’s “On Mission!” initiative, it’s clear not all parish mergers are created equal. The keys to success? Listening well and involving members, local Catholics say.

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Rose and John Velgich-Figlar stand behind the ropes blocking off the front steps of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Hazelwood. The church has been closed since September 2020.

John and Rose Velgich-Figlar were longtime members of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Hazelwood. In July 2020, St. Stephen’s merged with St. Paul Cathedral. Two months later, St. Stephen’s was closed for regular services. The Velgich-Figlars worry about the closure’s consequences for the Hazelwood neighborhood. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

Father Lou Vallone's 45 years ministering in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh accustomed him to accepting change necessary to sustain the Church. While some balked at the diocese's 2018 decision to merge its 188 parishes into 57, he said it seemed like a natural and unavoidable step.

“If you want things to remain the same, everything must change,” he said. The Church can’t continue to grow and serve people from “that old log cabin church your grandmother was baptized in.” 

The goal of the mergers — part of the diocese’s broader “On Mission for the Church Alive!” initiative begun in 2015 — is to strengthen the Catholic Church’s local presence by reallocating its resources. 

Pittsburgh had more Catholic buildings and congregations than it had priests and parishioners to sustain them. Now the hope is quality over quantity: the diocese seeks fewer parishes but ones that are “ever more vibrant.”

Rose Stegman, the director of faith formation at the newly formed Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish serving Allison Park and Glenshaw, sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as an apt metaphor for the parishes’ experiences. “Even though it feels like dying, there will be rising,” she said. 

That process can bring joy. “The mergers present an opportunity for new beginnings,” said Joyce Rothermel, a long-time member of St. James Church in Wilkinsburg, now part of the St. Mary Magdalene Parish created last year. 

Joyce Rothermel, right, and Sharon Currie, left, members of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, stand by a large outdoor sign that reads “St. Mary Magdalene Parish, St. Bede Church.”

Sharon Currie, left, and Joyce Rothermel, right, are members of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, established in January 2020. The merger brought together three faith communities, each with its own culture: St. James Catholic Church, St. Charles Lwanga Parish and St. Bede Church. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

It can also bring pain — and unevenly so across different parishes. In many cases, financially stable “anchor” churches are intentionally merged with struggling or indebted churches to make the parishes as a whole more sound. That disparity can lead to shame and resentment, Vallone said, even if people understand rationally that it’s for a common good.

“Sometimes our minds know things that our hearts won't embrace,” Vallone said.

Some parishioners also grieve the loss of physical worship spaces. In July 2021, Christ the Divine Shepherd Parish, the result of a merger the previous year, announced the closure of four of its six churches in the Monroeville and Penn Hills area, citing dwindling numbers and $1.2 million of debt. Other parishioners, especially from small or older churches, worry their buildings are on borrowed time.

“In everybody's mind is, ‘Which church are they going to close next?’” said Sharon Currie, also a parishioner at St. Mary Magdalene Parish. “Everybody's touched by that one thing … because, you know, the writing's on the wall.”

Yet material circumstances like building closures and budget crises aren’t the sole determiner of how smooth or painful a merger is. They are also shaped by less tangible factors like leadership styles and attitudes within congregations.

By parishioners’ and church leaders’ accounts, two key ingredients are open communication and member involvement. These factors push at the historically hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church. Could they mark a new era in the character of Pittsburgh Catholicism?

Open communication

Rose and John Velgich-Figlar were longtime members of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Hazelwood. When the diocese announced in April 2018 that St. Stephen’s would be grouped with St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, it was unwelcome news.

“We felt doomed,” said John Velgich-Figlar. St. Stephen’s was a neighborhood church. St. Paul’s is the Mother Church of the diocese. They had vastly different resources.

John and Rose Veligh-Figlar behind a glass window with the figure of an angel etched into the glass.

When John and Rose Velgich-Figlar learned St. Stephen Catholic Church would merge with St. Paul Cathedral, they felt “doomed,” John said. They feared they would have no voice in decisions, given the disparity in the congregations’ resources and membership counts. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

St. Stephen’s, St. Paul’s and two other churches, St. Rosalia’s and St. Regis’, were grouped in October 2018. They officially merged in July 2020 with the pandemic in full swing.

In September 2020, the pastor Father Kris Stubna announced that, when the parish churches re-opened for in-person services, St. Stephen’s and St. Regis’ buildings would remain closed. In the short term, the buildings would still be used for special occasions like baptisms and weddings. In the long term, they would be “relegated to profane use,” or stripped of their sacred objects, and closed completely.

Parishioners learned early in the merger process that two of their church buildings would eventually close. They were informed that the parish had created a Facilities Task Force, composed of leaders and members from all four churches, to evaluate the buildings. They knew COVID had worsened the parish’s financial situation. “We have buildings that we simply do not need and cannot afford to maintain,” Stubna wrote in a post on the parish’s Facebook page in March 2020.

But because the task force kept their work confidential while in progress — a condition of their assignment — the painful reality of the results for the Velgich-Figlars came all in one blow.

The task force evaluated the parish’s three smaller churches using a multi-faceted rubric, Stubna’s announcement video explained. The rubric took into account the churches’ locations, membership trends, upkeep costs and short- and long-term project needs, such as replacing the HVAC or rewiring the electric system.

St. Stephen’s score on the rubric was the lowest by far and, among other findings, the task force assessed St. Stephen’s would need more than $600,000 in repairs over the next five years. 

“St. Stephen’s scores so low on this rubric, it’s crazy,” Rose Velgich-Figlar said. “We couldn't believe this. We could not believe this.” 

John and Rose Velgich-Figlar stand outside the ornate front entrance of St. Stephen Catholic Church. The front steps, which are crumbling in places, are roped off.

The Facilities Task Force of St. Paul Cathedral Parish assessed that St. Stephen’s would need $600,000+ in repairs over the next five years. It was one factor in the task force’s recommendation to close St. Stephen’s. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

She and 50-plus others — some parishioners and some outside supporters —  sent Stubna a letter, asking to see the full report. He helped them arrange a meeting with representatives from the Diocese. At the meeting, they reiterated their request. They were still not shown the report.

Jennifer Antkowiak, executive director of diocesan community relations, said it was not standard practice to share the full reports.

She pointed to Stubna’s regular bulletin announcements, blog posts and social media updates about the merger as a “paper trail” of his transparency. “He knows to over-communicate when there are situations that are challenging,” she said. Stubna did not respond to interview requests for this story.

To the Velgich-Figlars, Stubna’s decision not to share the task force’s full report was a symptom of a larger problem. They sensed Stubna and the diocese were doing a lot of talking without the other key element of communication: listening.

They and others were anxious about what the loss of the St. Stephen’s church building would mean not just for themselves but also for Hazelwood. Social activism was a core part of St. Stephen’s mission and their Catholic identity. They worried that, if the church lost its visible presence in Hazelwood, people outside the Catholic faith would stop thinking of it as a resource. The Church wouldn’t meet neighborhood needs in the same way.

When Stubna requested $6,000 in donations for Cathedral Christmas trees or posted on social media that people should stop complaining about it being “inconvenient” to drive an extra 10 minutes to Mass when Jesus Christ died on a cross, it felt to the Velgich-Figlars and others like their new parish didn’t understand their position or particularly care.

A robed statue keeps watch over the entrance to St. Stephen Catholic Church.

St. Stephen was an early deacon and martyr in the Christian Church known for caring for the poor. Meeting the needs of people in Hazelwood was core to St. Stephen Catholic Church’s identity. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

Barbara Brummitt at Mary, Queen of Saints Parish suggests one reason for their merger’s success is the open communication. “The three priests that we have right now have been instrumental in keeping people aware of what's going on and excited about the changes,” she said. “And I think that has been hugely helpful to the acceptance of this.”

Father Jean-Luc Zadroga said he and his colleagues at the parish made open dialogue a priority from the start. Because of the people, the merger hasn’t been difficult, he said. “We absolutely love to hear from them.”

John Hans, partner of Step Forward, a change management platform designed to help parishes strengthen their missions, said he emphasizes transparency as a cornerstone, especially in moments of change.

“If you don't tell people what's going on, you can create distrust,” he said. “And everything you do will be harder if people don't trust you.”

Member involvement

One of the catalysts for the mergers in the diocese is that there are fewer priests to minister to the people.

As Rothermel of St. Mary Magdalene’s sees it, that can be an opportunity for growth. “Lay people can take up things that have been done by priests in the past,” she said. 

Rothermel uses the term synodality to describe the kind of grassroots or lay organizing she sees as essential to the merger process. The Catholic Church has traditionally had more of a top-down hierarchy, she said. Yet, under Pope Francis, that dynamic is shifting. There is more space for people to voice concerns.

The front entrance to St. Bede Church in Point Breeze features large wooden doors and a circle drive.

St. Bede Church in Point Breeze is one of three faith communities that makes up St. Mary Magdalene Parish. With the parish’s priests having more territory to cover, Joyce Rothermel suggests parishioners might step up and take on greater leadership roles. It can be an opportunity, not an obstacle, she said. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

Ultimately, the merger process is dictated by canon laws, which designate one person, the head priest, as the sole voice of authority within each parish. Those priests, in turn, are accountable to the bishop, who is the sole voice of authority within the diocese, and so on, up the Church hierarchy.

Yet, in the case of parish mergers, canon laws also require that priests gather input from advisory committees, parish councils and open congregational meetings. The Diocese of Pittsburgh provides all the merging parishes with the same vision plan, Antkowiak said, which walks them through the entire process, week by week.

The real variable, then, is how much the priests encourage or value this input and how well they facilitate the conversations, Vallone said. That can vary from parish to parish or even from decision to decision.

Not everything can be a democracy, Hans of Step Forward said. Sometimes priests or bishops have to step in and make a judgment call. He offered building closures as a potential example, if parishioners are not being financially realistic.

Still, to the extent possible, he recommends parishes do encourage lay leadership.

“This is a participation sport,” he said. “Instead of … the priest saying, ‘Here's my plan,’ the parish gets up and says, ‘Here's our plan that we built.’ And I think that ownership is really important.”

Of course, the flip side of that opportunity is that parishioners must choose to participate — and value one another’s participation. 

“At some point, you have to let go of who you were and become who we are,” said Currie of St. Mary Magdalene’s. This isn’t Currie’s first parish merger. She’s been through a building closure once, and she’s prepared that it could happen again. 

Sharon Currie, right, and Joyce Rothermel, left, stand for a photo outdoors.

Joyce Rothermel, left, and Sharon Currie, right, agree church leaders can only do so much to help the merger along. At some point parishioners have to let go of how they’ve ‘always done things’ and be open to forging a new parish identity, Currie said. (Photo by Nate Smallwood/PublicSource)

Some parishioners seem to take new ideas and new blood as threats, not opportunities, Currie said. She described attending Mass at one site: “You come in the church, you say ‘Hello!’ and nothing’s said.”

As an African-American Catholic, Currie said the feeling was familiar. She’d been experiencing racial discrimination in the Church — people who “just tolerated you” or “didn’t like you without cause” — since she was old enough to recognize it as a possibility.

She doesn’t let it hinder her faith. Her mother, who converted to Catholicism when Currie was 6, instilled in her that “this is the faith for our family.” Still, that doesn’t make it easy, she said.

When it comes to people’s guardedness at St. Mary Magdalene’s, Currie senses race is one factor “in the mix.” Her parish of origin, St. Charles Lwanga Parish of Homewood and Lincoln-Lemington, had a substantial Black population. St. Bede’s and St. James, the other two churches in the merger, were predominantly white. 

She thinks the parish is making progress. Parishioners have created a Cultural Action Team, and Father Matthew Hawkins, one of two Black priests in the diocese, hosted a panel in which Black parishioners could share their experiences in the Catholic Church.

Currie hopes these kinds of programs will lead to a more inclusive parish and faith tradition. When she was younger, she said, people didn’t really talk about race or racism in the Church. “You just sucked it up, and you kept going.” Now, she sees people trying to listen and learn. “It has to be a step in the right direction,” she said. “Please, I’m praying.”

She emphasized that, for her, the biggest single obstacle in the merger process is still some people’s resistance to change. 

She sees the situation as analogous to a family. “We didn’t pick this,” she said, “but we have to get along.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin. 

This story was fact-checked by Chris Hippensteel.

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