St. Louis parishes dodge closure by appealing to the Vatican

St. Matthews St. Louis St. Matthew the Apostle church in St. Louis, is one of the parishes slated for merger that is appealing to the Vatican. | Paul Sableman|Wikimedia|CC BY 2.0

Amid a major restructuring plan in the Archdiocese of St. Louis — Missouri’s largest and oldest — seven parishes plan to send appeals to the Vatican, putting aspects of the mergers planned for the parishes on hold until the Dicastery for the Clergy issues a ruling, which could take several months.

“Out of respect for each parishioner’s right to this recourse and in keeping with Archbishop [Mitchell] Rozanski’s desire to maintain access to the sacraments, we will be suspending the effects of the following All Things New decrees until this process has been exhausted,” the archdiocese told CNA in a July 31 statement.

The parishes seeking recourse from the Vatican include St. Angela Merici (Florissant); St. Catherine of Alexandria (Coffman); St. Francis of Assisi (Luebbering); St. Martin of Tours (Lemay); St. Matthew the Apostle (St. Louis); St. Richard (Creve Coeur); and St. Roch (St. Louis). 

Of those seven parishes, five of them were set to be subsumed into another parish and closed. St. Angela Merici and St. Matthew were set to be merged (not with each other) into new parish groupings.

The widespread reassignment of 158 archdiocesan priests, which was announced along with the various mergers, will proceed as planned, the archdiocese said. But because of the appeals process, incoming pastors for parishes that have announced their intention to seek hierarchical recourse “will be directed to do nothing which would prejudice the rights of the parish goods,” meaning financial accounts and finance councils should not yet be merged, among other things.

“In the meantime, the Archdiocese of St. Louis will be making provision for the pastoral care of each parish that is impacted. The suspension of the effects of these decrees will be lifted once recourse before the Apostolic See has concluded,” the archdiocese concluded.

“A pastor should respect the fact that all the faithful can legitimately vindicate and defend their rights in the Church in the competent ecclesiastical forum according to the norm of the law.”

According to the archdiocese, the number of parishes in St. Louis will be reduced by 43, from 178 to 135. This is due to 32 parishes being subsumed by others, two parishes being closed entirely (suppressed), 15 parishes being merged into five new parishes, and one new Spanish-language parish being created.

Before making the changes, the archdiocese held 350 listening sessions, with at least one in each of the 178 current parishes. It also considered feedback from 70,000 Catholics in the archdiocese who participated in a survey. Feedback was also solicited from 18,000 school parents, staff, teachers, donors, and community partners. The archdiocese also held focus groups and talked with civil and business leaders.

Rozanski, who announced his final plans for the archdiocesan-wide mergers in late May, said the feedback helped structure the final plan, which was approved by the All Things New Planning Committee. The committee included priests, deacons, parish life coordinators, lay leaders, and religious within the archdiocese. In addition to considering the feedback, they also looked into financial data and other information.

Some Catholics in the archdiocese had been critical throughout the All Things New process because of the extent to which proposals would shake up parishes. More than 3,000 Catholics in the archdiocese signed a petition that asked the archbishop to halt the plan about two months ago.

The petition criticized the structure of the survey and claimed it only allowed the faithful to answer predetermined questions without being allowed to address specific situations in their own parish. It also claimed the process would cause mistrust in Church leadership, which could drive Catholics away.

Rozanski ultimately declined to revoke any of the 83 decrees he made regarding the final plans, leaving the parishes with recourse only to the Vatican.

The consolidation process, branded as “All Things New,” was administered by the Pennsylvania-based Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) and is very similar to ones undertaken by CLI in recent years in other major midwestern archdioceses, such as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Numerous factors, including increasing suburbanization and rising crime, have led in recent years to an exodus of people from St. Louis’ historic inner core, where the greatest number of large, historic parishes were clustered. Catholics have been moving gradually west for several decades, away from the city center along the Missouri River and toward the suburbs, leaving parishes in the more urban areas with smaller Catholic populations from which to draw. Overall, in 2021, the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis dipped below 500,000 for the first time since the 1960s.

The number of parishes would have likely exceeded the number of priests by 2026, according to archdiocesan projections.

The St. Louis parishes’ appeals to the Vatican are not unprecedented in the United States. In dioceses such as ClevelandBuffalo, New YorkBoston; and Springfield, Massachusetts, parishioners have issued appeals to the Dicastery for the Clergy to save their parishes after their bishops ordered them closed.

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In 2011, the Vatican upheld the then-Springfield bishop’s decision to dissolve three parishes but did not allow the closure or deconsecration of the buildings. The next year, following a ruling from the Vatican, then-Cleveland Bishop Richard G. Lennon announced he would reopen a dozen parishes closed in 2009 and 2010 as part of a comprehensive reconfiguration plan.

In 2014, a decree from the Dicastery for the Clergy stated that St. Ann’s Church and Shrine in Buffalo could not be sold or repurposed for profane use. The Buffalo Diocese had closed the shrine and was seeking to sell the complex to a secular developer. The Church’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, in 2017 reversed the dicastery’s decree at the request of then-Bishop Richard Malone. As of early 2023, the former shrine is slated to become a mosque after being sold to a Muslim group.

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