Update (4/29/2018): The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced on Saturday, April 28, how its 188 parishes would be grouped into 57 new, multisite parishes. The diocese had originally proposed there would be 48 groupings. The diocese also shared which priests and deacons would be assigned to the new groupings. According to the diocese press release, the groupings are expected to merge into new parishes between 2020 and 2023. A complete listing of parish groupings, clergy assignments and other information is available at onmissionchurchalive.org.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh counts 632,138 people as members of its fold, though less than a quarter of those congregants attend Mass weekly. Half of the diocese’s 188 parishes are running operating deficits. And the diocese anticipates the number of active diocesan priests to drop 50 percent within seven years, to 112.
When Bishop David Zubik sees these numbers, he doesn’t take it as a sign of a church in crisis, but rather a side effect of Rust Belt residents moving to other regions.
In 2007, Zubik’s inaugural address as bishop put forth a vision for the future that would eventually inform a strategic planning process to restructure and reinvigorate the region’s Roman Catholic churches. It was dubbed “On Mission for the Church Alive!” In September 2017, the diocese’s On Mission Commission announced initial recommendations for whittling the number of parishes down to 48.
Zubik will share final plans for consolidations with priests and deacons on Thursday, April 26, before holding a press conference on April 28 to make the decisions public. Groupings will also be shared at weekend Masses and made available online.
“We really need to come back to take a look at what our mission is. The mission is to help each other get to heaven,” Zubik said. “Bottom line, that’s what it is. And so, first and foremost, this whole process is around that reality. Evangelization. That's what gives this process its legs.”
In a sense, this restructuring is the continuation of a decades-long process. Under Zubik’s predecessor, Bishop Donald Wuerl, the diocese reduced its parishes from 323 to about 225 in the 1990s.
But how are parishioners affected when the diocese closes their home churches? And what happens to church buildings once their parishioners migrate and the buildings are left empty?
The South Side and Hilltop neighborhoods may provide a case study of how churches have merged in the past and what it means for their future. At least 15 Catholic parishes have operated in the neighborhoods at some point since the diocese’s founding in 1843. As in other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, many formed within ethnic enclaves of immigrants working in the city’s mills. Ethnic Germans formed St. Joseph in 1870. Lithuanians created St. Casimir in 1893.
Only two parishes remain in these neighborhoods — St. Mary of the Mount and Prince of Peace. Both have absorbed parishioners as other churches closed. Now the On Mission strategic planning process has recommended that those two fold into a single parish.
Linda Boss, 70, began attending St. Justin Church in Mt. Washington in 1975. She remembers when her pastor, the Rev. Walt Rydzon, convened with the Rev. Michael Stumpf several years ago to discuss a possible merger with his church, St. Mary of the Mount on Grandview Avenue. The pastors conducted surveys and consulted with parishioners from each church. Boss participated in the transition and felt that the 2013 merger went smoothly and was necessary: “It's like, you know, someone that doesn't want to leave their home, but yet they can't afford to take care of it.”
Parishioners celebrated their final Mass at St. Justin in early 2013. The church building was sold the next year and has been transformed into a 46-unit apartment building.
Boss acknowledged that some parishioners were unhappy with the merger, though many eventually returned. “I think it’s healed,” she said.
Regardless of where they live and where parishes are operating, believers generally “go where they feel fed,” Stumpf said. “Parishes have gone far beyond geography.”
Parishioners migrated to St. Mary of the Mount when St. John Vianney in Allentown closed in 2016. The St. John Vianney parish was the result of four other parishes merging in 1994. Those church buildings met a variety of fates:
- St. Canice in Knoxville: Sold in 2012 to Lion of Judah Church. The building is again up for sale.
- St. Henry in Arlington Heights: Sold in 2014 to Pgh Burgers & Fries Inc., owned by Prasad Margabandhu, according to Allegheny County real estate records. Taxes have gone unpaid. The building has gone unused and has been cited by the City of Pittsburgh for code violations.
- St. Joseph in Mt. Oliver: Sold in 2013 to Potter's House Ministries and is being used for non-denominational church services.
- St. George in Allentown: Became home to the newly formed St. John Vianney in 1994. The church building closed in 2016 and is currently boarded up and unused. The St. George Preservation Society has proposed leasing or purchasing it from the diocese for hosting religious ceremonies and community activities. The society has appealed to the Vatican to reverse the diocese’s decision to close the church building for good.
Boss is a current member of St. Mary of the Mount’s pastoral council, which will advise the next grouping process. “I think the next [merger] is going to be tougher,” she said. “When St. Mary’s and St. Justin’s merged, it was a Mt. Washington community. People knew each other to some degree. Now that we’re possibly merging with the South Side, it’s like merging two communities. Merging two communities is a lot tougher than merging two churches in the same community.”
The Prince of Peace parish currently operates out of two church buildings in the South Side Flats — St. Peter and St. Adalbert.
Stumpf said St. Mary’s mission committee has discussed outreach efforts in Allentown, which is part of the parish. “There's been lots of conversation about issues of how to cross boundaries of race because there's a mixed racial community.
“Any time there's consolidation,” he said, “there's some sense of new person or identity that's formed.” If paired with Prince of Peace, he believes the churches “will be stronger together.”
‘Stewards of a lot of treasures in this world’
The Very Rev. Samuel Esposito is the diocese’s episcopal vicar overseeing the implementation of On Mission for the Church Alive! He summarized a common refrain from Pope Francis: “The church is not a museum. We’re not here to preserve something that we have from the past, because that’s static. We have to be active.”
Esposito said the diocese will discuss the grief of losing parishes and the future of church buildings, but his priority is “the mission of Jesus and going out and continuing to make disciples and spread the Gospel.”
Zubik’s April 26 announcement will initiate a transition phase, during which clergy assignments and Mass schedules will be determined before they are implemented on Oct. 15. The fate of church buildings left empty by the consolidations will not be determined this year.
“Right now, what we’re interested in is building relationships,” said Linda Lee Ritzer, the diocese’s secretary for parish services. “We’re interested in inspiring people to grow and become more committed to the sacramental life of the church, and the building issues are way down the road.”
Matthew Craig is executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh. His organization promotes the preservation of historic buildings as an important element of economic development, which can include the creative repurposing of churches.
“The church will probably say … that they’re not in the historic preservation business, they’re not in real estate business, they are in their church business,” he said.
“But they own buildings, and some of those buildings are historically significant. So they clearly are stewards of a lot of treasures in this world.”
The Young Preservationists’ annual “Top 10” Best Preservation Opportunities lists have included the St. John Vianney Church in Allentown, completed in 1912, and the former Italian Christian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside, which began as a Presbyterian church in 1898.
Craig acknowledged that not all edifices being closed by the diocese can find a “distinct repurpose” or be maintained affordably. He emphasizes that any repurposing of a historic edifice requires sustainable operations — an ability to pay the utility bills and maintain a structure.
“At its heart, historic preservation is just good real estate,” he said.
There are many examples of creatively repurposed churches. St. Helen Church in East Pittsburgh closed in 2014 and eventually became The Holy Grail Garage, which stores vehicles and provides clubhouse patrons with TVs, a pool table, bar and cigar room, a kitchen and laundry facilities. In Lakewood, Ohio, near Cleveland, the former St. Hedwig Church became the Museum of Divine Statues, housing statues and other artifacts culled from defunct Catholic churches.
Craig pointed to The Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, the former St. John the Baptist Church, as another successful repurposing and an example of the value of creating community spaces out of old churches. Still, he qualified his point: “On the other hand, do you want to create a landscape where when somebody sees a church they think ‘bar?’ That’s a very real concern.”
The diocese’s strategic planning process began in earnest in 2012 with various councils at parish and diocesan levels meeting to discuss restructuring parishes, in consultation with the Catholic Leadership Institute. The criteria for grouping parishes included whether there were existing relationships, the ratio of clergy to parishioners and the capacity of parishes to accomodate more people. Lay and clergy leaders within each new grouping will discuss the fate of specific buildings, guided by canon law, and then make recommendations to Zubik.
“It’s not going to be a decision top down,” Zubik said, “but bottom up.”
The diocese has raised $234 million in cash and pledged support as of December 2017 to support restructuring and other initiatives. It’s the largest diocesan fundraising campaign, in terms of parishioner pledges, in U.S. history, according to the National Catholic Register. More than $44 million has already been allocated for an array of long-term needs at parishes, schools and other institutions.
Pruning to grow
“I know it's going to work,” Zubik said, “because we have several parishes that have already moved down this path.”
He pointed to Holy Apostles Parish that serves the South Side neighborhoods of Carrick, Baldwin and Overbrook. The consolidated parish administration operates on a rotating Mass schedule out of four church buildings: St. Albert the Great, St. Basil, St. Norbert and St. Wendelin.
“When that whole process began,” Zubik said, “people were very protective about my church building, my pew, my Mass time. So, then you have somebody who comes in with a vision, and all of a sudden the people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe my building, or my pew, isn't the most important thing.’”
Parishioners began working together on festivals and fish fries and formed relationships.
Marge Lubawy, 75, knows she’s facing a similar church transition. She grew up in Allentown and attended St. George Church and school, beginning in the 1950s, but now lives in Brookline where she attends Church of the Resurrection. The On Mission Commission recommended that Resurrection combine with five other parishes in Beechview, Brookline and Mt. Lebanon.
“I really would feel bad if my church closed because I raised my children here. I’m used to this church. I think it’s a beautiful church,” she said. “...But I’m not going to fight it because nobody wants their church to close, and we know that this is inevitable. ...
“I will go wherever the Eucharist is.”
For those who disagree with the diocese’s decisions, Esposito would ask: “Do you want your grandchildren to have the faith? Do you want this building or do you want us to be able to share the faith with them? What’s more important?” He emphasized that each grouping will need to prioritize according to their sense of mission.
“You prune to grow,” he said.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Lind.
Mark Kramer is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher based in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Rossiter is pursuing a doctoral degree in Community Engagement at Point Park University. She can be reached at email@example.com.