Catholics await decision on church closings (with video)

Roman Catholics throughout the Capital District will know the future of their church communities nex
Bishop Howard Hubbard talks to The Gazette editorial board at the Daily Gazette on Wednesday morning, about the planned closing and merging of local churches.
Bishop Howard Hubbard talks to The Gazette editorial board at the Daily Gazette on Wednesday morning, about the planned closing and merging of local churches.

Roman Catholics throughout the Capital District will know the future of their church communities next weekend, when Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese is expected to announce his decision regarding the two-year-long church consolidation process, Called to Be Church.

Called to Be Church, a program announced in June 2006, is a plan for the diocese to close, consolidate and link various churches throughout its 14-county region because of shifting demographics and a shortage of priests.

In a recent interview with The Sunday Gazette, Hubbard said he intends to shrink the number of churches in the Albany Diocese by about 20 percent. The decision will affect not only churches but convents, rectories and at least two Catholic schools, Hubbard said.

“Nothing is more dear to a person beyond their own family than their faith community,” Hubbard said. “Major milestones happen in that sacred space. Obviously there is going to be some hurt and pain, and people will go through the seven stages of grief.”

Hubbard said he hopes the openness of Called to Be Church will eliminate most of the hurt and pain associated with church closures and the reconfiguration of many faith communities.

“People have seen this coming. It’s not a complete surprise,” he said.

Most Roman Catholic churches throughout the Northeast began in cities, the population centers. Many were built in the pre-automobile era and catered to neighborhood ethnic groups, Hubbard said. It was not uncommon for a Roman Catholic church with a large Italian congregation to be two blocks from a Roman Catholic church catering to Polish immigrants — as is the case with St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary’s in Schenectady.

“Now that we are in the third and fourth generations, those churches are not fulfilling that need anymore,” said Hubbard.

In the past 40 years, cities have lost 30 percent of their population, while the suburbs have grown in population between 50 and 75 percent.

The Catholic population has followed that same trend. Since Hubbard was ordained as Bishop in 1963, he said 15 new churches have been built in the diocese — all in the suburbs and affluent cities, such as Saratoga Springs.

fewer priests

In addition to shifting demographics, the Albany Diocese is facing a dramatic reduction in active priests.

In 1963, there were more than 400 active priests in the diocese; today, there are only 124. By Hubbard’s retirement in 2013, there are expected to be less than 100 active priests left in the diocese.

“There is no question that there is a severe decline,” Hubbard said.

Called to Be Church has lasted about two and a half years and involved more than 10,000 Catholics. After Hubbard’s announcement in June 2006, parishioners met at a series of Town Hall meetings within their parish clusters until fall of that year.

Then, from June 2007 until June 2008, 164 parishes were put into one of 38 local planning groups, each comprised of between two and eight parishes. The planning groups were charged with developing recommendations for the diocese by looking at various aspects of church life, including a parish’s weekly attendance, finances and building condition. The groups were also given a preview of the priests who would be available to serve that cluster.

There were three options for each church: close, merge or form a link with another church.

By June 30, all recommendations were submitted to the diocese.

devising a plan

Since then, Hubbard and the diocese administration have reviewed recommendations, at times asking the planning groups to make changes, and have come to a conclusion regarding the future makeup of the Albany Catholic Diocese.

Hubbard said the process has been successful in his mind, and the planning groups have come up with several creative solutions that he had not thought of himself.

Some parishes are already implementing some of the recommendations by creating integrated worship groups within their clusters, Hubbard said. Some churches have recommended closing immediately; others will close in six months or a year.

Hubbard said he expects layoffs but isn’t sure how many positions or who will go. Most churches employ part-time secretaries and directors of spiritual life.

The future of the diocese’s unused properties is also unclear. Hubbard said religious institutions will have first priority for reusing unused buildings, then non-profits and finally commercial businesses. Religious artifacts will go to the successor church or, if unwanted, sold.

Hubbard said any profit from the properties will go to the remaining institutions within the community. The diocese has been successful in the past in finding alternative uses for its unused properties, including leasing Our Lady of Angels in Albany to a Protestant church and turning St. Mary’s in Troy into apartments.

addressing need

Hubbard said the diocese does not want to abandon cities. A task force has been organized to ensure the needs of the poor and elderly are met within the cities of Troy, Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam and Cohoes, he said.

The directors of Catholic Charities in those cities will be reviewing the need, Hubbard said.

The Albany Diocese also hopes to attract new members into the Catholic faith, including young people and those who have been alienated from the church. Outreach to young people will come in part through a strengthening of youth and campus ministries and the use of technology, Hubbard said.

Ultimately, said Hubbard, the Called to Be Church process is meant to teach Catholic parishioners that their faith is not identified by the building they worship in but by the community they create.

“It’s like pruning a tree,” Hubbard said. “We are taking small, dwindling churches and turning them into vibrant, vital communities.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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