With a shortage of priests and dwindling attendance at Masses, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany has not ruled out church closings, but parishioners will have to wait until January 2009, when he announces which churches will close or be consolidated.
Diocesan spokesman Ken Goldfarb said on Tuesday that Hubbard will receive recommendations from parishes in June. After that, a panel will convene to review the recommendations and Hubbard is expected to announce closures at the start of 2009.
It’s part of the diocese’s two-year restructuring initiative “Called to Be Church” that was first announced in June 2006 to address declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and changing demographics within the diocese.
It could mean sweeping changes.
There’s been talk in churches around the Capital Region about future closings. At St. Anna’s in Summit, Schoharie County, the priest told parishioners at a Mass in January that up to 60 churches could close.
But Goldfarb said there’s “no targeted number” of churches that will close and no specific parishes are slated for closure. And he said the diocese does not have a secret plan.
“We don’t expect any final decision by the bishop until the first of the year. We are awaiting recommendations from 39 different local planning groups,” said Goldfarb.
When he announced the initiative, Hubbard called it a “joint responsibility, one that belongs to all of us.” The biggest change will be that many churches may no longer have resident pastors and there may be changes in care and services to the elderly and sick, he said.
As part of the plan, local planning groups that consist of leadership or representatives of two or more local parishes and 1,000 parishioners are involved.
The 39 groups were organized throughout 2007 and began discussions on how, at that time, the parishes in each group provided programs and services to meet the needs of people within the parishes, said Goldfarb.
They discussed how to share services with each other and talked about these matters with parishioners, according to Goldfarb.
In January of this year, the groups started to develop recommendations to be forwarded to the diocese by June 30.
They will be reviewed by a Pastoral Planning Review Commission and given to Hubbard, who will review the recommendations before he makes his final decisions.
Diocese officials said nothing is finalized by the local planning groups and closing or consolidating churches could take several years.
“The purpose was to give those in the parishes a chance to look at the mission of the parish, knowing what challenges they face in the months and years ahead — and determine how to maintain the mission,” said Goldfarb.
Hubbard is relying on local groups to submit their recommendations for review, according to Goldfarb.
The Albany Diocese is faced with many of the same problems dioceses around the state and country are facing with fewer ordained clergy.
When Hubbard became bishop, there were 300 priests in the diocese. Today, there are 190 priests available for parish ministry.
According to recent projections, the number could go to 155 by 2010 and to 121 by 2015, said Hubbard.
The deacons, catechetical leaders, youth ministers and other leaders and ministers in diocesan parishes will likely take a more active role in ministry in the future.
At the same time, suburban churches are growing and urban churches are shrinking. The diocese has seen a dramatic demographic shift in every city in the diocese, but Saratoga Springs declined by 30 percent.
Nearly a dozen churches in the diocese have closed or merged since 1995.
In December 2007, the diocese, in response to a request from St. Rita-Sacred Heart Parish in Cohoes, agreed to close one of that parish’s two worship sites.
“It is the consensus of the Councils of St. Rita-Sacred Heart Parish that Sacred Heart Church, as long as it remains open, will be a drain on the viability of the parish,” according to the request received by the diocese.
And in December 2006, the closing of Holy Cross in Schenectady was approved by Hubbard on the recommendation of the parish council and the diocese’s Presbyterial Council.
Before those recommendations were made, the Rev. Richard Carlino had announced in October 2006 that Holy Cross would likely be closed.
The Watervliet and Green Island cluster of churches consolidated in 2006 from six parishes to one serving three locations; Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Watervliet closed in 2005; St. Anne’s in Waterford in 2003 and St. Thomas the Apostle in Schenectady in 1999.
Four churches in the diocese have expanded recently, including St. Catherine of Siena from 475 seats to 650 seats and St. Madeleine Sophie in Guilderland, which doubled its seating to 800.
While there have been closures, the “Called to Be Church” initiative is an opportunity for “creating our future,” said Hubbard. “In this regard, our pastoral planning process must be focused not on structures, not on buildings, not on personnel statistics, but on mission. It is the mission which needs to determine our structures and configuration, not vice versa.”
As of Dec, 31, 2007, there were 165 parishes in the diocese. A parish, or community, may have one or more churches.
In Schenectady County, there are 20 churches; in Saratoga County, 17 churches; in Schoharie County, four churches (The Mission listed for St. Anna, Summit, is the Camp Summit Correctional Facility).
There are 34 churches in Albany County (there is also St. Francis Chapel on Wolf Road. This is not a diocesan parish/church but a chapel run by the Siena Friars) and 27 churches in Rensselaer County.