BY CHRISTOPHER D. RINGWALDThe Diocese of Albany will close 33 local churches to deal with population shifts and fewer priests and to ensure the long-term health and mission of parishes.
The decisions, reached through a two-and-a-half-year pastoral planning process, were announced to parishioners during Masses Jan. 17-18.
"We as a Church must acknowledge the social and demographic changes that require change, and remember our Church must adapt, just as our ancestors' Church adapted to rapid changes in society throughout the 19th and 20th centuries," said Bishop Howard J. Hubbard.
He said that process produced detailed local plans for mission and ministry that should revitalize the diocese and its parishes.
The closures and mergers were concentrated in local cities, where populations have declined for decades. Most will take place this year; all by the end of 2011.
Almost all changes were known to be likely and there were few surprises.
In Albany, two churches will close as they merge with two others. In Troy, six churches will close. In Schenectady, two churches will close and two others will merge into one. In Cohoes and Amsterdam each, three churches will close. One church will close in Glens Falls.
"There's no question that the closing of parishes is a difficult and painful process for the people of the parish, for which there is a great spiritual and emotional attachment. All of the people involved in this process empathize with the painful adjustments that will be required," said Bishop Hubbard.
"In fact, my own home parish of St. Patrick's in Troy will be closing - the church where I grew up, went to school, celebrated my first Mass as a priest of the Diocese, and buried my parents."
The closures represent less than one in five of the 190 worship sites that are spread over the diocese's 168 parishes. Some are mission churches; others have already closed and this plan finalizes that status, the bishop noted.
There will be 11 mergers of parishes. In the cases of those that close outright, a successor parish will be named and parish boundaries redrawn in the near future. In Albany, two Catholic schools will merge.
The Diocese previously engaged in pastoral planning and has already closed and merged parishes.
But in view of changing demographics and finances, in 2006 officials launched a comprehensive, grassroots planning process, known as Called to be Church. The parishes of the diocese were divided into 38 local planning groups.
These consisted of parish leaders and lay representatives from neighboring parishes. Each group was charged with preparing a plan to cope with a likely scenario for the future in terms of priests and resources.
More than 10,000 Catholics across the 14 counties of the Diocese offered opinions and advice, and 1,000 participated in the local groups. These held a total of 600 meetings, including town hall meetings for all parishioners.
With an eye on local as well as regional needs, the groups developed plans to align facilities, finances and personnel with current and future needs of Catholics. They also sought to preserve the Church's commitment to inner cities, the poor, elderly and infirm, and other vulnerable populations.
The Bishop said that virtually all of the recommendations of the local planning groups for their churches were adopted.
The decisions were, officials said, driven by shifts in clergy and population. In the 1960s, there were about 400 priests in the Diocese; within five years there will likely be fewer than 100 diocesan priests serving 132 parishes.
Most cities across the Diocese, except for Saratoga Springs, have lost 25 to 39 percent of their populations since 1960. Suburban areas have grown by 50 percent or more during that time.
Further, they note, during the great wave of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many urban and ethnic parishes were built within blocks of each other and are now under-used.
For example, six urban churches in Troy can seat 3,200, but the combined weekend Mass attendance totals about 1,300 - the same number at a single parish in Ballston Spa or Glenville.
Even with the changes, the bishop said, cities will be well served. In interviews, he has also said that the Diocese will be able to adjust to any population shifts back into cities, such as through gentrification.
Despite the closings and mergers, the number of parishes in the urban areas will be greater than in the suburbs. For instance, Clifton Park has 36,000 people and one parish; while Troy, with 47,000 people, will have seven parishes remaining after the closure of six.
The City of Schenectady will have nine parishes for a population of 61,000 people; Cohoes will have two parishes for 15,000 residents; Amsterdam, three parishes for 18,000 residents; and Albany will have 10 parishes for its 94,000 residents.
"The Called to be Church plan provides a blueprint for the most prudent use of the resources that have been entrusted to us and a clear statement of our continued commitment to meeting the spiritual and human needs of residents of our cities," Bishop Hubbard said.
Dioceses across New York and the Northeast U.S. have or are engaged in similar consolidations. The Dioceses of Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo have closed between 20 and 30 percent of their churches.
Through Called to be Church, the Albany Diocese will close just under 20 percent of its existing worship sites.