SHREWSBURY — Roman Catholics throughout the St. Louis area are hesitant to cross highways and rivers to worship God in places different from where they are accustomed.
It was one of the comments from a group of about 220 priests recently gathered to look at dozens of potential ways to restructure parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
“It was a great first round of conversation,” Reverend Christopher Martin, who helps oversee the “All Things New” initiative, told The Post-Dispatch Thursday of the five-hour meeting.
For months, Catholic officials have collected and analyzed data on the archdiocese, which claims 400,000 members spread across 10 Missouri counties. They say a historic adjustment to the network of churches, schools and ministries is uniting a small flock that for generations has been moving west from the city of St. Louis to the county of St.Charles.
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A path of expensive buildings with fewer people on the benches was left behind, some a few blocks away. Today, St. Joseph of Cottleville is the largest church in the archdiocese, with 18,000 worshipers served by three full-time priests. That’s three times the number of registered Catholics in all of northern St. Louis, according to the archdiocese.
“We are competing against each other instead of collaborating,” Martin said of the need to restructure.
Amid ongoing migration and fragmentation, the number of full-time archdiocesan priests is expected to increase from 220 to 130 over the next 15 years, with an average of one priest remaining to serve 3,000 people. There are currently 178 parishes. Each can include anywhere from one to many churches in its geographic footprint. After the restructuring, the number of parishes is expected to be reduced to around 100, with the average number of families in each parish rising from 800 to 1,800.
Martin said the archdiocese does not want priests to be circuit runners serving multiple churches. Some churches will have to close, but Martin said there was no working master plan. First, reform of existing parish networks is necessary, he said, which requires feedback.
“There’s nothing secret going on,” he said.
Martin said the 220 priests who gathered on August 19 saw 42 options for reconfiguring parishes. He said the archdiocese is divided into 15 planning areas. Each planning area has two to four models for realigning parishes. Martin said the priests in attendance voiced their opinions, submitted 30 pages of written comments, and continue to provide feedback which, on the whole, was positive.
Asked about a sample of their responses, he told the Post-Dispatch:
• There are boundaries that Catholic faith communities have historically refused to cross, such as the line between the city of St. Louis and the county of St. Louis; Manchester Road; and the Missouri River between Washington, Missouri, in Franklin County, and the smaller communities of St. Charles and Warren counties.
• Concern to take care of the growing Latino community.
• Consider designating part of the “mission territory” of the archdiocese.
He said all of their feedback will be used to potentially tweak or add more parish designs to the mix of 42 before showing them to 1,000 lay parish representatives from across the archdiocese, starting Sept. 20. After this series of comments, the models will be discussed. with the masses in a host of nightly parish meetings held between October 8 and November 17. The final restructuring plan will be announced on May 28, at Pentecost, and its implementation is expected to take three years.
Asked by the Post-Dispatch about the recruitment of missionary priests in Africa and other Catholic growth regions of the world, Martin said, “A vibrant Catholic community fosters its own vocations.”
Asked about the names of the parishes, Martin said it was undecided whether some existing parishes would keep their names or all be changed.
“If you want to create new things, it should have a new name, because it avoids winners and losers, so to speak, in the process,” he said. “The other view is that, for stability reasons, you would retain the current names of certain parishes.”
Martin said that while the “most emotional part of this process” is figuring out the school and church structure, it should also be the easiest. He said it’s more difficult to address how to evangelize “whole generations who are falling away from the faith.”
“The church doesn’t exist to run schools, to run hospitals,” he said. “These are all good things that come from discipleship. If we don’t make disciples, these institutions will crumble.