This year's diocesan Mass attendance census showed signs of growth for the first time since annual statistics began to be kept almost a decade ago.

The reports, informally known as the "October Mass counts," calculate averages of parishes' weekend numbers for Mass attendance for the month of October. The counts had shown a drop in Mass attendance every year since 2003 - but the process slowed last year and finally improved this year, showing an average increase of 1.24 percent across the Albany Diocese.

"I think it's a good sign," said Deacon Frank Berning, director of the diocesan Office of Pastoral Planning. "It encourages us to keep doing what we're doing. We're doing something right."

He said many factors may have led to this apparent progress, including "Called to be Church," the pastoral planning process that led to the closing or merging of 35 parishes by the end of 2009.

"We had gone through a very painful experience with Called to Be Church," he said. "No matter how carefully we did it, some folks were not happy." But that didn't increase the rate of loss, he added, and it led to a renewed focus on evangelization and adult faith formation in the Diocese.

Perhaps Tropical Storms Irene and Lee in 2011 also attracted people to the Church, Deacon Berning mused: "People jumped into [service] because their neighbors were hurting. We weren't just saying that we need to do things; we were actually doing them."

He said the storms unified Catholics in Schoharie and Middleburgh, where a painful parish merger had led people to ask, "What's really important here? Is it about the building or is it about the people?"

The October canonization of Auriesville native St. Kateri Tekakwitha also "gives us something to feel good about" and had the power to evangelize, Deacon Berning said.

The historic event, however, didn't appear to sway the census. "There was a shift in where people attended [Mass that weekend], but there wasn't necessarily a jump," he said.

Much of the growth from this year's count was subtle: overall positive change in the Schoharie deanery and a slight increase in the Saratoga deanery, for instance. Several suburban parishes reported consistency from previous years.

Some small rural parishes posted apparent leaps - like increases of eight percent at Sacred Heart in Stamford, four percent at St. Thomas the Apostle in Cherry Valley and six percent at St. Vincent de Paul in Cobleskill - because of a few dozen new faces.

Indeed, the reports were glowing for St. Peter's in Delhi - but Rev. Edward Golding, administrator of the parish, plus St. John the Baptist in Walton and its mission church in Downsville, doesn't see the impressive changes the statistics seem to indicate.

"The shifting demographics are killing us," Father Golding said. The congregations haven't quite shrunk, but the priest has celebrated 60 funerals in two years and hasn't seen new families.

Younger generations "don't join anything, let alone churches," he said. "What they consider sacred is lifestyle."

Part of the problem is Delaware County's isolated location, which was once a draw for downstate retirees, but seems to be losing its appeal, Father Golding said.

Young adults are increasingly choosing to leave the area: "There's nothing here to hold them. They're not farmers, nor do they want to be farmers."

In order to maintain a Catholic presence in the central part of the county, Father Golding foresees more pastoral planning changes. But for now, he's proud of his people's involvement in ministries and outreach. St. John the Baptist is the largest supplier of the town's food bank of any church in the county.

"We're just trying to hold them together and do the best job we can proclaiming the kingdom of God here in Delaware County," said Father Golding, who doesn't pay much attention to numbers. "Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep,' not, 'Count them.' I can't lose sleep over it - and I'm not being apathetic. This battle is being fought all over the Northeast."

Deacon Berning agreed that Mass attendance is down at churches all over the northern United States, but said it's starting to rise in the south.

Sister Connie James, SND, parish life director of St. Vincent's in Cobleskill, said the changing face of Catholicism isn't about loss, but a shift in demographics. Her own community appears to be drawing Catholics from parishes in neighboring counties undergoing change.

"Some of it's not for positive reasons, [but] it's wonderful because it makes a really diversified group," she said.

St. Vincent's has welcomed 67 new families and 30 or 40 additional faith formation students in the last 18 months. It also doubled its number of baptisms in a year. The parish has been on the upswing for the past four or five years.

"When people are happy, it spreads," Sister Connie said. The parish's outreach to flood-affected areas, plus its family-centered, kid-friendly environment - children lead faith formation activities and enjoy their own homilies on Christmas Eve - seem to help. Cobleskill is attracting new residents, too.

"Some of it is Albany spreading out," Sister Connie noted. "People find it cheaper to live out here, and it is a simpler way of life."

Diocesan leaders are looking at the data favorably, but also cautiously, discussing accuracy and interpretation.

"It certainly brings joy to my heart," Deacon Berning said. "We work hard - the entire Church works hard - to introduce people to Jesus, to make that very real in their lives."