Columbus Bishop Considering Parishes’ Fates

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The leader of the Columbus Catholic Church is considering how to cope with a problem that dioceses around the country face. Bishop Frederick Campbell is trying to keep churches open through population shifts and a declining number of priests. WOSU reports Central Ohio parishioners soon will know the bishop’s plan.

Loris Mitchell knows all too well what it’s like to see a parish close. Hers closed almost ten years ago. She sits with about a half dozen people on the steps of Saint Leo in Marion Village. The cold temperatures and drizzling rain do not hinder their weekly prayers. The group meets every Sunday morning to pray at the closed parish.

“There was a lot of hurt. And some of our prayers that we say on Sunday are actually meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. And those really say what it is we were feeling,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the diocese closed Saint Leo because of a lack of priests and a lack of money. That was in 1999.

The populations of the Columbus Catholic Church and its priests have been headed in opposite directions long before Saint Leo closed.

Currently the diocese has 171 priests – 22 percent fewer than it had 20 years ago. The number of parishioners, though, has increased 24 percent during that same time period.

Many churches around the country have faced closures and consolidations. Twenty-nine are closing in Cleveland, 33 in upstate New York and 33 in New Orleans.

Declining populations, urban sprawl, fewer priests and not enough money to keep churches open are to blame. Bob Tayek speaks for the Cleveland Diocese. He said migration to the suburbs was the main reason the diocese decided to close parishes. Not to mention 42 percent of the parishes were operating in the red. And finally, there are just not enough priests to serve all the churches. Tayek said Cleveland has half as many priests as it did in 1970.

“We were in relatively new territory,” he said.

Tayek said the diocese asked parishioners for their help. It wanted them to suggest church mergers within their areas of the diocese.

“There were several that really couldn’t come to a consensus on an action. And in a sense they moved it back to the diocese and said we can’t figure out what’s the best thing to do here or some cases people were willing to make the final call,” Tayek said.

The Columbus Diocese is approaching a critical stage.

Following a two-year look at parishes, a planning committee submitted to Bishop Frederick Campbell its recommendations on what steps should be taken to ensure the health of the diocese.

Rick Jeric served on the committee. He declined to reveal specific recommendations but he said the study showed some obvious trends.

“There are less priests than there were last year, five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years ago. We have more parishes. We are in a growing diocese. The number of priests to provide the sacraments and to administrate our parishes is becoming less,” he said.

Jeric said Franklin County’s biggest growth is in suburbs around the outer belt, while some inner city parishes have seen a decline in membership. WOSU asked Jeric if this growth threatens urban churches.

“I would not call the parishes in the inner city at-risk. I would just say they have different needs. We did not have any of the parishes come out and emerge from this self-study process as just being in such dire shape and in such dire need that it became clear to any one that we would categorize them as at risk or automatic candidates for either closure or consolidation,” he said.

In some parts of the diocese there are several parishes within a few blocks of each other. With so many priests already serving more than one parish and other areas of the diocese needing more churches does this mean some may have to close or consolidate?

“At this point now I would say that I just don’t know. I think that looking at a lot of the date and a lot of the parts of the studies, you might conclude that something like that could happen in the future,” Jeric said.

It’s Ash Wednesday and people leave Holy Cross Church after midday mass with crosses marked on their foreheads. The historic church in downtown Columbus is the city’s first Catholic Church.

Lillian Jackson said, yes, she’s aware of all the closings around the country and in Ohio. Although she attended Holy Cross for Ash Wednesday mass, she’s a regular member of Saint Dominic’s on the city’s East Side.

“Right now we seem to be pretty stable, but it could go away just like any other church, so. We just have to do what’s best for the community,” she said.

Mike Hartley attends Saint Joseph’s in Circleville. He said he’s concerned because it’s the only Catholic Church in Pickaway County.

“We’ve seen, you know, through our news letters that donations have gone down and during these economic times it’s a concern,” Hartley said.

Bishop Campbell has said multiple times he does not want to have to close parishes. His findings on the strategic planning of the Columbus Diocese are expected in May.