Vermont diocese sees record-low number of priests

Cathedral of St. Joseph Main altar of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Burlington, Vermont/ Cathedral of St. Joseph

The Diocese of Burlington has reported a record-low number of priests this year, with only 50 diocesan priests ministering to the entire state of Vermont.

“The drop of eight [priests] in one year caught us off guard, but we still have 50 priests in parish ministry,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington told CNA on July 2. 

Earlier this year, four international priests serving in the diocese had to return to their home countries after their visas were set to expire. Three of those priests are from the Philippines, and one is from Nigeria. 

The diocese said in a May 3 statement that the priests had to return home because their visas would expire before any application for green card status could be approved. Although the diocese said it began applying for visa renewals in a timely fashion, recent developments extended the renewal process to around a year longer than expected. The priests could return to the diocese in 12 months, Bishop Coyne said at the time.

In addition to 50 diocesan priests, 44 permanent deacons and 15 religious are ministering in 68 parishes, according to the diocese’s website. The diocese serves 110,000 Catholics in the state. Of the 50 diocesan priests, only 36 of them are listed in active ministry.

The diocese, which was established in 1853 and covers the entire state of Vermont, began with 53 priests and, over time, was home to hundreds of priests. Vocations in the diocese began to decline in the latter part of the 20th century, hitting a record-low number of 50 priests in 2021. 

Father Robert Murphy was the only priest to be ordained in the diocese this year, and seminarian Gregory Caldwell was ordained a transitional deacon; both men were ordained on Saturday, June 19, at St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington.

The diocese has set a baseline of 40 priests for the “foreseeable future.”

Bishop Coyne told CNA that the diocese did not expect the recent drop in clergy, calling the year an “extraordinary” one for the diocese. He is expecting that with the return of foreign priests in a year’s time, the diocese “will be in a more stable position.”

“We have been fortunate in that we have had some priest transfers as well as incardinations and ordinations to keep us moving forward,” he said. 

Due to the unexpected absence of the four priests, several parishes will not have a resident priest. The diocese said that the parishes of Our Lady of Mercy in Putney, St. Andre Bessette in Troy, Our Lady of the Lake in Grand Isle County, St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Bridget in West Rutland, and St. Dominic in Proctor would each be without a resident priest.

Bishop Coyne wrote at the time that in order to compensate for the priest shortage, he transferred and reassigned a significant number of priests. The parishes and chapels with clergy transfers have been listed on the diocese’s website

Coyne recently reinstated the obligation to attend Sunday Mass for the diocese’s 68 parishes on July 4. 

The bishop said in a June 27 press release he hoped that the people of the diocese would view participation in Sunday Mass as “something we want to do, not something we have to do.”

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