The closure of a parish is comparative to a death in the family. Over the past three decades many parish communities have been shuttered throughout the United States as a result of shifting demographics within the population, the lessening immigrations of ethnic groups that gave rise to, “national,” parishes in the 19th and 20th centuries and most poignantly decreasing numbers of Catholics that choose not to embrace the faith. Regardless of the causality, the suppression of a parish community is indeed a lamentable occurrence in the life cycle of a community of the Catholic faith.
Even more tragic is when the administration of the local diocese or archdiocese chooses to suppress a parish because of a multiplicity of nebulous reasons even though the surrounding neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance in a newly infused population and boutique business’ that are bringing new life into a formerly exhausted neighborhood. Far too often, parishes are closed, consolidated, merged or designated as a worship site without the proper evaluation of the shifting trends in the population and the demographics of where the local corridors of development are trending within a specific city.
My own neighborhood of Gray’s Ferry has been decimated by the arbitrary closures, mergers and consolidations in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia throughout the past thirty years or so. Parishes, high schools, grade schools, convents and rectories have all fallen under the redlining scrutiny that has considered these once vibrant entities as malignant. Scores of generations of ethnic immigrants that hailed from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other European nations were the foundational forbearers of the Catholic that compromised part of Penn’s experiment in Philadelphia. From the height of the immigration influx of the mid-nineteenth century the Catholic Church is Philadelphia perhaps reached its zenith until the rise of the suburbs in the wake of the Second World War. Some of the collateral causalities of the post war period were indeed the urban parishes of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church as an institution has not done a good job in managing the effects of urban flight and decay but rather has significantly contributed to the blight and spread of this malady in the latter part of the 20th century.
Under the ignominious guise of cost cutting, lack of vocations, inability to sustain large parish complexes and other banal absurdities Catholic parishes have been decimated by generations of Archbishops in Philadelphia only later to realize that the areas once considered liabilities are now once again prosperous and thriving enclaves of Philadelphia life and culture. One example to cite is the former parish of Saint Anthony of Padua in the Gray’s Ferry area of Philadelphia, just off South Street which is part of the ever developing Center City South real estate gentrification. Around 1999 Saint Anthony’s Parish was written off as unsustainable because of the dwindling population, urban decay and mounting financial liabilities. At the same time, the urban planners in the City of Philadelphia had earmarked the area known as the Devil’s Pocket and indeed all of Gray’s Ferry for renewal and expansion. Instead of cooperating with the local municipal planners and most importantly working within a Catholic spirit of evangelization and catechesis Saint Anthony of Padua Parish was suppressed, the boundaries of the parish redrawn, the sacramental records consigned to the neighboring Saint Charles Borromeo Parish and the faithful Catholics of the Devil’s Pocket were told that they were too poor for the Eucharist and the celebration of the Church’s mysteries. Generations of Irish-American Catholics (including my own paternal great grandparents,) that considered Saint Anthony’s as home packed up their stories of nostalgic lore, blindly said yes to the directives of the Archbishop of Philadelphia and watched their hard work and spiritual touchstone sold off in pieces to different entities. The greatest tragedy of all was the dismemberment of the parish’s church…stained glass sold off to another parish, altars retrofitted and sold to another parish, pews sold to other denominations, all of these things donated for perpetual use of the parish in memory of their parents, grandparents and untold generations of faithful Catholics that emigrated from foreign shores and now called Philadelphia and Saint Anthony of Padua parish their temporal and spiritual home. Perhaps the greatest and final indignation was the sale of the parish church to a sect of Baptists at a fire-sale price, all so the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could mothball another parish, write off the loss and close the books on the generations of the faithful that built Saint Anthony’s Parish into a festival of faith, culture and common spirituality.
Let’s jump into 2016 and return to the area surrounding Saint Anthony of Padua parish in Gray’s Ferry. Despite the fact that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia prematurely buried the patient/parish the area is blossoming into new viability with the influx of young married couples, professionals that commute to center-city Philadelphia and a whole new cross section of business’ dot the landscape on Gray’s Ferry Avenue. The Baptists have vacated Saint Anthony’s Church and it is now under development by a company called Red Door Properties. They are developing the late parish church into studio condominium apartments for the growing real estate market is what the Archdiocese of Philadelphia wrote off a mere 25 years ago. By citing this example of the resurgence of a new population into what was once an area of crime and decay the question needs to be asked: Should Catholics have a stronger influence on what happens to their parish properties? My immediate response is an unconditional, YES! For too long, Catholics have had policies dictated to them by their local functionaries and in keeping with the notions of sustainability and subsidiarity on which I have previously written it is time to reevaluate the position of ownership and parish usage of properties. It is evident that priests, bishops and diocesan administrators are incapable of property management and it is time to take back our Catholic heritage.
What is the proposal? Remove properties from the direct control of the Ordinary and permit the parish community to maintain and manage their own local properties. God knows local parishioners with proper guidance can do a better job of managing their own local properties than the institutional Catholic Church has done in the last 100 years. The emerging vibrancy of Gray’s Ferry is a superlative example of a failed vision on the part of the administrators of the late Saint Anthony of Padua Parish. Additionally, why aren’t our Catholic leaders engaged in new evangelization and for lack of a better description, parish maintenance of existing faith communities in order to keep each and every parish viable? Each parish entity is indeed similar to the life of a person and demands that every effort should be utilized to keep parishes alive and functioning as part of the Joseph’s Coat of Catholic diversity that is the underlying composition of the Body of Christ. Parishes are more than debits and credits on a financial ledger, they are people with souls rich in history, diverse in culture and regaling in an uncalculatable treasury of collective memories that are the deposit of the Catholic faith and lives spent in the daily experiences of joy, sorrow, life and death in following Christ through a local parish experience.
Saint Anthony of Padua parish despite the drawing and quartering of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is alive, not necessarily in the former parish of that name. It is alive in the hearts and minds and the souls of all of the people that were touched by the Church’s Sacraments and it continues to live in the hearts, minds and souls of the people that once called Saint Anthony’s Parish their Catholic home.
It is time to stop the senseless dismemberment of our Catholic parishes and examine all available alternatives before the suppression of a parish, which effectively ends the spiritual life of a faith community. Selling off buildings has thus far not realized a stronger Church in the Philadelphia area, it has only produced a more marginalized group of faithful diaspora that are seeking other faiths for spiritual enrichment and a continues death spiral for the existing Catholic population of the area.
Evangelization, renewal and sanctity of life should be the hallmarks of the Catholic Church in the 21st century, not the moniker of failed property managers.