Philly’s Archdiocese Needs to Rip Off the Band-Aid

Stop torturing parishioners with piecemeal closings: Pick one church and one school in each neighborhood … and close the rest.

Cathedral Basillica of Saints Peter and Paul. Photo Beyond My Ken

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Photo Beyond My Ken.

Every morning, I pass the entrance of St. Laurentius elementary school on Berks Street in Fishtown. “Have a great day, hon!” shouts the principal, who stands outside with two teachers every morning — including every single day of the Polar Vortex — to safely usher her students into the building. Even on the rainiest, grayest days, this part of my commute always makes me smile.

Seeing the plaid-wearing students — their backpacks bigger than their little backs and their stretched-out knee socks flapping around their ankles — run into their elementary school resonates with me deeply. Though I no longer identify as a member of the Church, I know that my 12 years of religious education and worship shaped the way Iive my life now — and not just in my deep appreciation for punctuality and knee-length skirts. I believe in the community that can come from being a member of a parish and how a church — and especially, a school — can anchor a neighborhood and help it weather tough times.

Those of us who grew up in the culture of Philadelphia parochial schools, are bound by them even now. When I chat with childhood friends, we don’t refer to neighborhoods, we refer to parishes. “She went to Cecilia’s,”  we’ll say. Or “He moved from St. William’s to St. Al’s,” we’ll explain with a knowing look. (This helps us avoid saying what we really mean: that relocating from Lawncrest to Huntingdon Valley means someone is movin’ on up in the world.)

There was a time when the Archdiocese was brimming with so many devout Catholics that a community, like my current one in Fishtown, could support two churches and schools within three blocks of each other. If I walk out my door and turn left, I am at St. Laurentius Church. If I turn right, I am at Holy Name of Jesus. At one point, both of these churches and schools were full and functional. This is not the reality of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia anymore.

Now, St. Laurentius has a school but no church and Holy Name has a church but no school.

This week, when word came down from the almighty Archdiocese that 16 parishes are closing their doors, I understood exactly the kind of heartbreak the parishioners of those churches were feeling. When my alma mater, Cardinal Dougherty High School, closed a few years ago, I watched with great interest as alumni threw rallies and raised money in hopes of buying just one more year. I followed the Facebook posts and online message boards. The day we knew the school’s fate was sealed, I felt a strange sadness in knowing that no one else would attend my school. The same feeling returned the next year, when St. William’s elementary school — my elementary alma mater and once one of the largest parochial schools in Philadelphia — was shuttered.

I’m not alone. Every year, it’s someone else’s church, someone else’s parish. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is, like many archdioceses across the country, struggling to survive. Every year, congregations all over the region send up their prayers and light their vigil candles, hoping to save their churches.

The anguish has to stop.

My suggestion to the Archdiocese: Put these people out of their misery already.

Instead of doing it piecemeal over the course of years, speed up the foregone conclusion. Don’t close a few schools and churches each year, do one big shutdown. Get smart, impartial people to look at the data on each parish. Don’t make decisions based on internal politics or emotional connections. Choose the buildings that are the most economically efficient to maintain in the long-run. Keep just one school and one church open in each neighborhood. Funnel resources — from clergy and educators to dollars and cents — into bettering each community’s school and place of worship.

Yes, this is an extreme solution. And yes, the parishioners of the closed churches would be forced to relocate their worship. For those who truly have faith, those who truly want to attend Mass and give their children parochial education, they will make it work. They will acclimate to a new church and a new school and they will begin to rebuild the Catholic community in their neighborhood. It won’t be easy and it won’t come quickly, but it can happen — and it will ultimately be less painful than worrying each year that this is the final one for a church. But in the words of someone wiser than me, “It is better to know and be disappointed, than to not know and always wonder.

This morning, when I walked past St. Laurentius, I saw the kids in their shirtsleeves running into their school on one of the last days of the academic year.  I remembered the young excitement of being on the cusp of  a gloriously long summer vacation. Back then, it never occurred to me that one day my schools and my church might not be around when I grew up. I wonder: Could these kids possibly understand that?

Follow @errrica on Twitter.

Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • Denise Rambo

    When the Archdiocese decides to close a parish, they should give the closing parish a clear explanation of what went into the decision-making process. In Bridgeport, 3 parishes were on the list. One of them had an increasing attendance at Mass, an extremely involved congregation, $1 million in the bank and put on a weekend event every year that netted nearly $100,000 for the church. The Archdiocese, in their infinite wisdom, has chosen to close that church – what kind of sense does that make? The people are confused and deserve to know why their flourishing parish was chosen. (And, no, I’m not a member of the parish I’m referring to. I’d just like to know what the Archdiocese was thinking.)

    • Siobhan

      Which parish is that?

      • Denise Rambo

        Our Lady of Mount Carmel

  • Poytszi

    Ripping off the bandaid would expose us all to infection, and way too much pus…

  • Glomarization

    > Don’t make decisions based on internal politics or emotional connections.

    Wait, you mean to say that the same Archdiocese that covered up child abuse by pedophile priests might be making its school and church closing decisions based on politics rather than common sense?

  • Siobhan

    The decision to close parishes is being done so in a strategic manner … I’m curious what type of research you did before writing this article? “Every year, congregations all over the region send up their prayers and light their vigil candles, hoping to save their churches.” Unfortunately prayers and vigil candles don’t pay the bills. Parishes are closing because people are not attending Mass and no longer give money to their parish. It’s a pretty basic concept to understand.

    • Erica Palan

      Hi Siobhan, thanks for these thoughts. I’m very aware that finances are at play here. That said, I recently read about a local church who had no debt but was closed anyway while a less fiscally sound church remained open. (I would LOVE to share the link with you, but unfortunately finding anything on is a challenge.) I’m sure there is strategy involved in the Archdiocese’s moves now. My suggestion is just another view on the matter.

      UPDATE: Denise Rambo, above, is mentioning the parish I’m referring to!

  • Marie B.

    I don’t know exactly what goes into determining which ones close and which stay open but I do think I know the issue: It’s the church’s teachings itself. A lot of them are arcane and according to many not with the times. While many faiths have found ways to embrace the historic teachings while progressing with modern times, it seems that the Catholic church has not. They think putting the Pope on Twitter will help but it won’t. The reality is they need to do a lot more to make people want to believe again. Change some doctrines, show that they are more open-minded, and when something like the sex abuse scandal happens again…DO NOT COVER IT UP. That last thing was very bad public relations on the part of the Archdiocese.

  • trainedmonkey2

    You’re missing a big point, Erica. What do you do with all of these churches that you close down? Some of them are beautiful, historical properties. You can’t just let them rot.

    • Erica Palan

      Thanks for mentioning this, trainedmonkey2. I hear you, but I think they’re actually two different points: One is about the intangible sense of loss and community that disappears when a parish closes. The other is about physical buildings.

      I agree that it is a misstep to let them rot. I’d personally be OK with seeing the Catholic Church sell them to developers—but I’m sure there are also other solutions.

  • Ant Karen

    How about why close churches and cause all the pain and suffering they are causing but keep the closed churches open for weddings and funerals. Why close them? They still need to be maintained and have to be maintained by the “saved church”. What are they saving by merging churches but keeping the other churches open for those events? It makes no sense if you are going to close them close them. Also, why should the merged church have to “assume” the debt of the closing churches shouldn’t that be “assumed” by the Archdiocese? People think that the church that “got saved” wins but in reality they don’t because they have “assumed” the debt of 1, 2 or even 3 churches…seems that the “saved church” looses too and once again the Archdiocese wins! Also to have the pastor of the “saved church” have to break the news is wrong, that is something that a representative from the Archdiocese should have come out and spoken to the effected parishes again the people loose and the Archdiocese steps back and wins. Just my opinion!

  • buzzbye

    Its called demographics people. Its that simple. Aging population dying off . Not enough new ones coming into the Church to replace them. Not enough kids being born to replace them. The Catholic dioceses is pricing themselves out of the education business. The economy is worse of now than when the crash occurred in 07. People are making avg 7 grand less family of 4. Times are changing. The age of the buildings, schools churches, upkeep all is taken into consideration. Instead of being angry you need to take a deep , very deep look at the big picture. Take a very big look at the world around us right now. Economic wise its not very good and its about to get a crappola load worse, trust me. There’s more going on out here that your not even aware of

  • MaryRoseM

    Ms. Palan you say you no longer identify with the Catholic Church yet somehow you feel qualified to determine what is best for the parishioners. Does this really seem reasonable to you? Anyone attending mass regularly would have been made aware of the process and all that is involved in making a determination on what parishes merge, stay open or close. Much goes into making a determination. It is a long process that includes the participation of the Pastor. I am certain the decisions are painful in some cases but nevertheless, they need to be made. The financial stability of a parish along with other factors must be considered rather than approaching it with “pulling a name out of a hat” to determine which church should remain open. Though the demographics have changed within the city of Philadelphia and many Catholics have moved to the suburbs, there are still people, who like you, no longer practice their faith. That is a very, very sad commentary. When people “drop out” not only do they do harm to their own spiritual health, but their decision impacts an entire community. Many feel they no longer need religion and can live their lives as they please without the “interference” of God and the Church. This has very serious consequences on society. Moral relativism has replaced God’s Word. Jesus asks us to be in relationship with Him and He meets everyone where they are at. For those who no longer paractice their faith I suggest they give Jesus and the Church another try. The Catholic Church is the church He founded. Most conversions do not happen overnight and we need to open our hearts to receive His grace and participate. Just imagine how different things could be if we all did that?