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As the Archdiocese of Chicago prepares to close or combine churches...
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As the Archdiocese of Chicago prepares to close or combine churches...

Posted on Thu, Oct 6, 2016

As the Archdiocese of Chicago prepares to close or combine churches, even parishes like St. John of the Cross in affluent Western Springs will feel the pain. How so? Imagine multiple-couple weddings.

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/section/catholic

A Catholic Reformation

As the Archdiocese of Chicago prepares to close or combine churches, even parishes like St. John of the Cross in affluent Western Springs will feel the pain. How so? Imagine multiple-couple weddings.

By his own account, the Rev. David Dowdle has a great assignment. He knows priests who worry about their school kids getting shot on the way home. He knows others who help hold fractured communities together, who singlehandedly keep parishes running with the barest of budgets.

Dowdle is pastor of St. John of the Cross in Western Springs. It's one of the largest and most prosperous parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, situated in a quiet suburb of $1 million homes, and families with kids who go on to Ivy League and Big Ten universities. "My worst day," he says, "is far better than most priests' best days."

His job today won't be the same as his job tomorrow. Spurred by a shortage of priests, falling Mass attendance, white flight and financial struggles, the archdiocese plans to close or combine a significant number of parishes in coming years.

The reorganization is part of a larger multiyear plan, announced by Archbishop Blase Cupich in February, called Renew My Church. It seeks to reinvigorate Catholicism in Chicago by shedding crumbling buildings and reallocating resources in the archdiocese, which covers Cook and Lake counties, 2.2 million Catholics and 347 parishes. The archdiocese's parishes as a whole have long operated at a deficit and finished fiscal 2015 almost $59 million in the red.

The shrinkage will certainly affect financially strapped parishes in neighborhoods that have lost congregants. But finances will not be the only factor in deciding which churches will close or merge. Every parish will feel some impact because everyone will be asked to work together to create faith communities strong enough to draw Catholics back into the church, says Betsy Bohlen, the archdiocese's chief operating officer.

“Even very vibrant parishes in affluent communities are less effective than they could be if they collaborated,” she says.

Stephen J. Serio

The Rev. David Dowdle was ordained in 1979. He has been pastor of St. John of the Cross since late 2007.

As Dowdle has gently warned his parishioners, not even St. John's—with 3,900 registered families, 650 children in its school and more than $6 million in church and school revenue last year that yielded a small surplus—will escape the reality of a future with reduced resources and far fewer priests.

This will be a different St. John's from the one I've known for nearly 30 years. The parish, where I still attend Mass when I visit my parents, exists to me largely the way I remember it from the 1990s.

But in the future, the convenience of a Saturday evening Mass and five Sunday Masses will probably be as quaint as the small veils (or bobby-pinned Kleenex) women wore in church until the 1970s. On some weekends, St. John's parishioners will likely have to drive to neighboring La Grange as one priest juggles several parishes.

Dowdle can even imagine a time when couples at St. John's will get married several at a time because there simply aren't enough priests to officiate individually.

Cupich acknowledges that the change will be difficult. “This will take stepping out of our comfort zone, our patterns of behavior that have become familiar and comforting . . . so that a greater good can flourish,” he wrote in a June 26 column in the archdiocesan newspaper.

Chicago is late to this reckoning. Other major archdioceses, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, have already gone through a similar reorganization.

The Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal is one reason for its need to cut budgets. The Archdiocese of Chicago has paid more than $140 million to settle victims' claims.

Meanwhile, Mass attendance has declined precipitously in recent years. The average weekly number of churchgoers in the archdiocese fell 26 percent from 554,000 in 1995 to 411,000 in 2015.

The main forces behind the downsizing have been building for decades—mainly the priest shortage and the movement of Catholics to suburbs from urban centers, says Charles Zech, an economics professor and director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University outside Philadelphia. Undertakings like the one the archdiocese is planning "would have been much easier for all concerned if it had been handled earlier, but it's human nature to avoid painful situations," he says.

To Catholics, the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s represented a revolutionary shift, with an emphasis on laypeople. But this next wave of change will be even greater, says Dowdle, who first spoke with me in May in his office in the parish center, nestled between the church and the school, about 20 miles from downtown Chicago. "We haven't seen anything yet compared with the changes that will happen," he says. "Folks better start getting ready for it."

BUSY PRIESTS

Dowdle, 62, grew up with 11 siblings in west suburban Forest Park. He was ordained in 1979; his assignments have included Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview and St. Gall on Chicago's Southwest Side. His appointment to St. John's came unexpectedly, when a priest who was to transfer there died of a heart attack. Dowdle arrived at St. John's in late 2007 after a bout of lung cancer.

Last spring, he was diagnosed with cancer again—this time in his vocal cords and luckily caught early. In late June, he finished two months of radiation therapy. He couldn't speak during the treatment, and he's not sure how his voice will recover.

His situation exacerbated an already heavy workload for St. John's associate pastor, the Rev. Bill Vollmer, 51. He and Dowdle are the only full-time priests at the parish, down from three in 1985, when St. John's had 2,400 registered families. A rotating cast of retired priests—all in their 70s and 80s—who regularly help out with Masses has stepped up even more during Dowdle's absence. (Across the archdiocese, between 60 and 70 percent of retired priests still celebrate Masses, perform marriages and baptisms, and visit the sick in hospitals.) Dowdle, who will be 65 when his six-year term as pastor ends in 2019, expects to retire at St. John's.

St. John and the Chicago Archdiocese

St. John of the Cross is one of the largest and most affluent parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In the first few weeks that Dowdle couldn't speak, two scheduled school Masses were switched to prayer services so teachers could lead them. "That kind of change will increase," he writes via email, which he used to answer questions after his diagnosis.

Dowdle's workday is as busy as that of any senior executive. He typically begins weekdays by celebrating Mass at 7:45 a.m. before jumping into hours of meetings with any of a dozen parish and school committees. On Saturdays, confession is scheduled after 8 a.m. Mass; weekends also frequently bring funerals and weddings. In between, Dowdle must prepare homilies, pen a note that goes into the weekly bulletin, meet with individual staffers, field requests to anoint the sick or counsel grieving parishioners, attend school and church events, and maintain his own spiritual life. He gets one day off a week.

There's a chance, under the archdiocese's reorganization, that St. John's will continue to have more than one priest but that their duties will extend across several parishes.

Many Catholics anticipate that, in the near future, priests will mostly stick to doing things only they can do—like administering sacraments—while counseling, outreach and administration will increasingly be shouldered by deacons and laypeople.

Deacons, men who can be married, also are expected to be asked to do more. They generally assist during Masses and can preach homilies, baptize children and even officiate at weddings, but they can't celebrate Mass or hear confessions. But there aren't enough of these men either. St. John's has one staff deacon and two retirees who still help out; Dowdle says the parish could use 10 or more.

Like many parishes, St. John's also has a full-time paid pastoral associate who organizes liturgies and adult faith programs, offers support to grieving parishioners and assists in parish outreach to poorer churches and social services providers. The archdiocese, which employs 100 pastoral associates, requires them to have a graduate degree from a Catholic institution. Eighty-five percent are women.

While Dowdle welcomes having more lay personnel, he says Catholics will have a hard time adjusting to a non-priest as their go-to person. "I fear priesthood being defined as only sacramental ministry," he writes. "A formed and trained laity is essential to the future, but people want to know who will be the 'pastor,' the one they can approach about any issue involving parish life, the person they can look to for spiritual meaning as well as practical daily decision-making. We are going to have to figure it out together."

Right now, the archdiocese has 431 active diocesan priests, who report to Cupich and generally take new assignments every six years. An additional 225 are retired. More than 600 priests in religious orders also participate in a variety of ministries, but only 105 of them serve as pastors or associate pastors. The archdiocese expects its ranks of pastors to decline to 240 by 2030.

St. John and St. Gall

St. John's donates money to a handful of other parishes, including St. Gall on Chicago's Southwest Side. Here's how their budgets compare.

In May, the archdiocese ordained just five priests. Nationally, there are 38,000 diocesan and religious order Catholic priests—down 26 percent, or nearly 15,000 men, since 1990. Half the diocesan priests in the U.S. are expected to retire by 2020.

Glimpses of the future can already be seen at St. John's. For decades, the parish had 6:30 and 7:45 a.m. daily Masses. Facing dwindling attendance and a heavy workload, Dowdle three years ago cut the 6:30 Mass and put the 12:15 p.m. Sunday Mass on summer hiatus. St. John's also combines its high school retreat program with St. Francis Xavier and St. Cletus in La Grange, and is considering a similar combination of its program for those converting to Catholicism.

That leads to the thought, not discounted by anyone, that the three parishes could ultimately share a priest, with parishioners shuttling among the three churches for Mass.

COLLECTIONS AND CONTRIBUTIONS

But even in this era of diminished resources and the decline of religious institutions, half of the parishes in the archdiocese break even or record a surplus, according to Bohlen.

St. John's is one of them. The parish was created in 1960 as Catholics migrated en masse to the suburbs from the city. The church itself is simple, without the soaring ceilings and stained glass that make city churches so breathtaking—and so expensive to keep up. St. John's, built to resemble Christ's barnyard birthplace, features a lot of brown wood and few embellishments beyond a state-of-the-art organ for the choir.

In Western Springs, the average home sells for north of $500,000, and the big new ones—which have rapidly replaced modest ranch homes over the past 15 years—easily go for $1 million or more. Those homes are frequently bought by people in their 30s and 40s who grew up in the area and decided to return with their own families. The bulk of St. John's parish revenue comes from individual donations, mainly the Sunday collection. In its fiscal year ended June 30, 2015, that brought in $2.4 million, with about half of St. John's registered households contributing regularly.

Like all financially stable parishes, St. John's gives the archdiocese 10 percent of its ordinary revenue—which includes collections and fundraisers but not bequests from wills—to help offset deficits at poorer parish schools and administrative costs. Collections cover its $2.15 million in regular annual costs, which include the archdiocese assessment and a mandatory contribution to a retirement fund for priests.

Stephen J. Serio

A parishioner awaits the start of Sunday Mass. While St. John's is one of only 55 parishes in the archdiocese to record attendance of more than 2,000 each weekend, Mass attendance fell 9 percent last year, based on an annual October headcount.

The parish's largest expense, salary and benefits, last year totaled $887,000 for 14 full- and part-time staffers. Dowdle earns about $37,000 annually. He and Vollmer, like many parish priests, live in a rectory on church property and don't need to pay rent.

Utilities, insurance and building maintenance cost St. John's $300,000. The church also pays nearly $100,000 to subsidize its youth religious education program and a high school faith group called Crossroads.

But the second-biggest line item for St. John's is the $709,000 it kicks in to its school, which operates a separate budget. That brings total parish expenses to $2.86 million annually, or about $400,000 more than it earns via the collection plate.

With 650 students, the prekindergarten through eighth-grade school is one of the biggest in the archdiocese. Still, annual tuition of as much as $5,135 doesn't cover the $3 million it paid last year in salaries and benefits for its 81 teachers, aides, administrators and maintenance personnel

"The business model of Catholic education is in trouble, in that costs will keep increasing," Dowdle says. If parish collections decline in the future, St. John's school will have to increase other revenue streams to make ends meet, he adds in an email. “The parish is giving as much as it can to subsidize the school.”

Under Dowdle's leadership, the portion of the school's revenue provided by the parish has dropped to 18 percent last year from 36 percent in 2007. Tuition, fundraising, contributions from the parent association and matching corporate donations have increased to cover the difference.

To bump itself into the black, St. John's relies on several additional sources of money. The key factor in the church ending its last fiscal year with an $80,000 surplus is a brainchild of parishioners called SJCFest. The annual weekend-long party in the school parking lot offers Six Flags-worthy carnival rides for the kids and a beer tent for the parents, plus barbecue and live music. In 2015, its fourth year, the festival earned $90,000.

PARISH PROFESSIONALISM

St. John's also makes ends meet thanks to paid lay staffers who have worked to professionalize the parish and improve services, and legions of volunteers who plan an annual garage sale, a winter gala and a summer festival that raise more than $200,000 for Catholic education, parish operations and other uses.

Elizabeth Russell-Jones is one of those staffers. Russell-Jones, 50, a part-timer who joined the staff in 2013 and runs the welcoming program for new parishioners, grew up in Western Springs, went to church at St. John's and graduated from DePaul University. She spent 10 years working in Silicon Valley and returned to the Chicago area in 2000. A couple of years later, she registered at St. John's, she says, and thought Catholics could do a better job welcoming new members.

"It was essentially a, 'Hi, welcome to St. John's, here you go,'" Russell-Jones says, pushing a donation slip across the table in her small office. "I came from a business background, and I thought, 'Where's the customer service?' "

Today she spends Tuesdays, Thursdays and some Sundays offering orientation programs to each new family. It's a customer-focused approach—and, at the same time, a throwback.

The Chicago Archdiocese

Some 2.2 million people, or 37 percent of Cook and Lake counties, identify as Catholic.

"One of the reasons (Chicago's) parishes were so all-encompassing a century ago was that they were sort of like little wards, and the pastors were like aldermen," says Pat Reardon, a former urban affairs reporter at the Chicago Tribune who until recently served on the archdiocese's pastoral council, a group of lay advisers who meet regularly with Cupich. "Immigrants looked to the pastors to understand how things worked. They would tell them how to vote, where to find a job."

St. John's newcomers aren't looking for the same things. In recent years, about half of the new members have been ages 25 to 40. Most people in that age group register because they plan to have a child baptized. Joining a Catholic parish does not require a fee or a financial commitment. In fact, says Villanova's Zech, part of the Catholic Church's problem is that it has never clearly asked for a specific monetary commitment. Also, other Christian denominations give their members more say in how money is spent. As a result, "Catholics give half as much as Protestants," he says.

Annie and Ben Mohns and their young children are one of the 175 families that joined St. John's last year. Annie, one of my dear friends since our freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, grew up in a large Catholic family in Michigan and knew of St. John's from her older brother, whose family joined the church in 2014. The Mohnses' now 4-year-old son is in part-time preschool there; a 2-year-old daughter and a baby on the way will follow in his footsteps.

Annie immediately joined St. John's moms group. That rapidly expanded into cocktail parties, yoga classes, speaker events on faith formation and weekend family parties with magicians and pizza. "It's definitely a different feel from attending Mass in the city, where I felt anonymous," she says. "The sense of community and connectedness has been wonderful."

Stephen J. Serio

Sister Josephine O'Brien, 93, who is originally from Ireland and formerly taught at St. John's school, works at the Women's Club Annual garage sale.

Yet even as the number of registered families has increased, and even though the pews are still full compared to those at many city churches—St. John's is one of only 55 parishes in the archdiocese to record attendance of more than 2,000 each weekend—Mass attendance fell 9 percent last year, based on an annual October headcount. "When I arrived in 2007, people were standing in the back during Mass on a regular basis," Dowdle says. "That doesn't happen anymore."

Generally, according to several parishioners and staffers, a third of St. John's 3,900 families go to Mass weekly and are highly involved in parish life. Another third make it to Mass occasionally, while the remaining third are disengaged entirely except for baptisms or funerals.

Part of the problem stems from the demands of modern life, such as Sunday youth sports games. The issue has become so apparent that leaders from St. John's and other area parishes met with an auxiliary bishop last fall to discuss it.

St. John's, then, must walk a fine line between meeting parishioners where they are—meaning accepting the amount of "time, talent and treasure" they choose to pledge to the church—and encouraging them to make faith more central, especially when it comes to attending Sunday Mass, a requirement for Catholics to remain in good standing.

Russell-Jones says she offers a thought to all her new moms: "You don't have to get sucked into traveling soccer practice for 7-year-olds who aren't going to play in high school," she says. "Define your priorities and make a commitment to your faith."

CONTRACTION IN CATHOLICS

The reality is that St. John's—despite a strong parish community, a well-run school, a balanced budget and a beloved pastor—can't escape the inexorable declines faced by the larger Catholic Church. Chalk it up to the increasing secularization of American life, to doctrinal frustrations or to lingering hurt and anger from the sexual abuse crisis, but after decades of holding steady at roughly 25 percent of the population, Catholicism is losing members.

The total number of Catholics dropped by 3 million between 2007 and 2014, and more than six people leave the church for every convert, according to a Pew Research Center study. Half of all U.S. adults who were raised Catholic leave the church at some point.

Catholics, still the largest Christian denomination in America, aren't the only religious group to lose numbers. During the same period, Christians as a whole fell from 78 percent of the population to 71 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation spiked to 23 percent of Americans in 2014, from 16 percent in 2007.

Cupich's Renew My Church plan is intended to remake the archdiocese for this environment. It marks the first formal overhaul since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin closed 33 parishes in the early 1990s.

Stephen J. Serio

About half of St. John's registered households contribute regularly.

Exactly what's in store is hazy, however.

Parishes will be reconfigured to release priests from day-to-day administrative duties so they can focus on spiritual leadership and re-engaging Catholics who have drifted away from the church, says Bohlen, the archdiocese operating chief. Chicago's parish structure, formed in the 19th century to serve small pockets of Catholic immigrants, will be reformed to serve broader areas and break up what church leadership says are silos created by the antiquated structure. Bohlen says that the archdiocese won't leave neighborhoods where churches are in disrepair, and that the changes will strengthen the church.

“The ultimate goal is to have vibrant parish communities that are able to re-evangelize Catholics and be much more outward-focused,” she says. “It's hard to do that today with a significant amount of very costly infrastructure serving too few people in many places.”

Archdiocese leaders emphasize that there are no quotas or strict deadlines for making decisions, because the process is motivated not by shareholders but by the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, life at St. John's this summer remains busy and largely unconcerned with the dramatic shifts being discussed by archdiocesan leadership. The Women's Club just completed its annual garage sale, and parishioners celebrated SJCFest. The church is booked with a wedding every Saturday through September.

But as I drive past St. John's on a recent weekend and watch a wedding party take photos, I can't help but remember Dowdle's prediction of multiple-couple weddings. How well would families accept that? How would all the guests fit in the church?

I suppose, to echo Dowdle's frequent refrain, the people at St. John's are going to have to somehow figure it out together.

READ MORE: Chicago's neighboring dioceses face same pinch


 


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