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Dorchester Parish Faces ‘Hard Decisions’ About Future

Parishioners at two of Dorchester’s remaining Catholic churches met this week to begin a summer-long examination of worsening financial problems that could result in more cost-cutting measures and even potential closures, according to the two priests who now lead the combined parish in Neponset.

About 300 people turned out for a St. Ann/St. Brendan Parish Collaborative session, which was held at St. Brendan Church on Monday evening the night after a meeting of the parish’s Leadership Team.

The session was triggered by a financial and attendance audit that the parish’s new leaders – Rev. Brian Clary and Rev. Robert Connors – said revealed a “more serious” problem than they were aware about when they accepted their assignments to the parish last month.

The report showed declining revenue amid a dip in Mass attendance at both churches, coupled with a heavy debt burden tied to operating and maintaining the aging worship spaces and associated buildings. Both campuses have amassed deferred maintenance that would cost an estimated $2 million to address.

“We did not come here to close churches,” said Rev. Clary, who last month began what he says is a six-year contract to serve as a co-pastor at the collaborative. “People are willing to do anything they can, but ultimately the parish leadership needs to make tough decisions about the long-term solution for sustainability.”

“Our job is to help people face reality and pastorally care for them,” added Connors, who was ordained in 1971 and is planning to retire in about a year-and-a-half. “We need to decide how will the parish serve all the people in this area best in the future.”

Both priests said that the parish “leadership”— which includes the parish council, finance committee and school boards and staff— will meet weekly over the next two months to review options and come to a consensus as to what steps to take to address the issues.

Together with input from parishioners, the leadership says it plans to craft a “set of proposals” by mid-August that would then be submitted as recommendations to the archdiocese of Boston by mid-September.

As part of the discussion to date, the leadership has asked: What must be done if the parish is to move forward without any changes given that some $200,000 is being borrowed for the cost of operations only through the end of this year? Five main points have been suggested as being key to any rebound:

• Attendance at Mass must increase in each parish – from 300 a week on average to 750 per week.

•A $5,000 increase in weekly offertories – up to $8,000 per week per parish – is needed to meet operating expenses.

• The crisis is a symptom of the greater problem: The lack of people involved in the parish in a regular basis. People need to return to church, and soon.

• The $850,000 in debt incurred by both parishes needs to be paid off.

• Deferred maintenance for both parishes is estimated at $2 million, with the property at St. Brendan needing the most attention as the deterioration of buildings continue.

Without a positive outcome to these issues as the summer wanes, could this mean the potential closure of one— or both— churches and/or associated programs, including the independent parish school housed on the St. Brendan campus? The answer from the leadership team is, basically, everything must be on the table, given the scope of the problem, which Connors emphasizes is more than just a budget gap.

“Nothing is closing right away,” said Connors. But, he quickly pointed out that average attendance at the two parishes, combined, is about 600 people per weekend, a decline that mirrors a church-wide slump in attendance both in Boston and nationally.

But while the newly installed pastoral team acknowledges that the decline in money and people in the pews is “common,” they add: “Ours is more critical and needs attention.”

Lower attendance has hit hard in the collection box. The parish’s income from collections amounts to a weekly sum of roughly $3,000. That has led to a mounting deficit between income and operating expenses— more than $40,000 for St. Ann and $26,000 at St. Brendan, according to a letter the priests sent to the parish community on May 25.

“The cash flow is impossible to meet,” they wrote. “Despite being as generous as they can, those who attend can’t support all the expenses of a parish. Hard decisions are necessary.”

Monday’s meeting included questions and remarks from about 25 parishioners, many of whom spoke up passionately for keeping both churches— and the schools nearby— intact.

In the case of St. Ann, the former parish school next door is now operated by an independent entity, St. John Paul II Catholic Academy, which oversees three campuses – in Lower Mills, on Columbia Road, and in Neponset (St. Ann). The school building is a parish asset, at least on paper. But through the existing arrangement with the Academy system, the K-8 school pays no rent to the parish, an issue that could also be revisited through the summertime review process.

At St. Brendan, the only parochial school in Dorchester still operated by a parish educates children in grades pre-K through 6.

Dorchester’s web of Catholic parishes has been battered by several waves of consolidation and reorganization in the last 15 years. In 2004, the archdiocese closed St. William church on Dorchester Avenue (it was absorbed into a newly named parish— Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, housed at the former St. Margaret church on Columbia Road) as part of a sweeping diocesan consolidation. In 2008, St. Kevin school closed its doors in Uphams Corner and the church of the same name that once stood next door has since been bulldozed for a housing development.

In 2008, a new Catholic Academy named for the late Pope John Paul II was established with a mission to reinvent parochial education in Dorchester by bringing five former parish-run grammar schools under one umbrella at five campuses— Neponset, Lower Mills, Columbia, St. Mark, and Mattapan. The St. Mark campus was quickly abandoned amid low enrollment and Mattapan— the former St. Angela school — was discontinued this year.

In 2012, the church executed a long-planned bundling of parishes into “pastoral collaboratives” with the aim of saving costs and staff resources, a process that was already piloted with success in 2009 with the creation of what is known as a “tri-parish.” Under that structure, Holy Family, Blessed Mother Teresa (nee St. Margaret), and St. Peter churches shared a pastor, who manages the finances, clergy, schedules, and facilities at all three churches.

St. Brendan and St. Ann were paired together in the 2012 reorganization— and at least for a time the combination was seen as a strong model under the leadership of two youthful, active leaders: Rev. Sean Connor and Rev. John Connolly, both chaplains with the Boston Police Department. That team ministry ended when both men were re-assigned in 2015.

Since that time, there has been high turnover at the St. Ann-St. Brendan collaborative, a fact that the new co-pastors addressed head-on in their introductory letter last month, writing: “[T]here has been too much instability of leadership and transparency may not have been as thorough which is unfortunate; but after acknowledging the past, we must face ‘now’ together.”

This story comes in partnership with the Dorchester Reporter, and was first published by the Reporter's newsroom.

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