As local Catholics attended Mass this weekend, they learned about the Archdiocese of Boston's church reorganization plan — a dramatic shuffling of parishes into so-called collaboratives. It's part of a five-year plan to try and strengthen churches in the face of declining church attendance and a shortage of priests.
Reaction From Boston Catholics
Just before Sacred Heart’s Saturday afternoon Mass ended, 90-year-old pastor John Connelly told parishioners the church will be joined in a collaborative with Our Lady Help of Christians, also in Newton.
Father Connelly says the collaborative is the right step for the church even though it means that he is resigning and will be reassigned. And in speaking with several parishioners outside the church, many agree.
"Well, I believe it makes sense in today’s day and age you know. I’m for it because of the shortage of priests rather than close parishes which makes people unhappy. They’ll be able to keep their sense of community," said Rita Galvin, a Sacred Heart parishioner for 47 years.
Eight miles away, at Sacred Heart’s new sister parish, Our Lady Help of Christians, the feeling of acceptance was similar.
"I think that at this point in time that the church is being realistic in terms of what its resources are, not just financial but also human," said Judy Malone Neville.
"I think it’s just a necessity they are forced into doing. So I don’t really have a problem with it. Just trying to make thinks more efficient, nothing wrong with that," Jim Quinn added.
Parishioners' biggest concerns, aside from losing their pastors, is whether the collaboration will cut down on the number of Masses. Between Sacred Heart and Our Lady, there are seven weekend Masses.
Learning From The Past
This is the second time in less than a decade that there’s been a major restructuring of churches in Massachusetts. In 2004, the archdioceses sold nearly a quarter of its churches. The move angered many Catholics and drove some to occupy their churches in protest.
Our Lady’s pastor, John Sassani, says the church is now taking a more gentle approach.
"I don’t think we realized the implications of some of the choices that were made, and it hurt people badly," Sassani said. "And I think one of the things that’s true is the church realizes this time around that there’s another way of going at it. So we learned from our experience, I think in a helpful way."
The problems confronting the church now are the same. Father Paul Soper, director of the collaboration process for the archdiocese, says this time they are consolidating in a way that keeps churches open so Catholics won’t lose their community.
"They are not going to lose the place that they worship. They are not going to lose the name of their parish," Soper said. "They are not going to lose the sense that if they’re putting money in the collection basket it’s going to the support of their parish.
"We think that this is going to have less of an emotional impact," he added.
However, all priests will resign and then be reassigned, so it's unlikely the current parish priest will stay on in a collaborative.
One of the largest collaboratives will be in Salem, where four parishes are coming together. Andrea Schwartz, who works at St. James in Salem, says she supports the changes.
"I think what we are trying to do is take the best of all of the parishes, bring it all together to make our ministry stronger, our sacramental program stronger, our team stronger. And we all know that people tend to jump on the bandwagon when it's strong," Schwartz said.
And that’s what the church says this plan is all about — evangelization, getting more people to jump on the Catholic bandwagon and join the church.
The archdiocese says it will leave decisions in the collaboratives up to local pastors. They will decide how many Masses to have, whether to rent unused buildings, or possibly close some of the churches in the future.
This first round of groupings represents 10 percent of the archdiocese. There will be at least two other rounds.
Peter Borre, of the Council of Parishes, a group that fights church closings, says he thinks the next phases will be more difficult as the archdiocese hits pockets of resistance.
"This obviously will be a gradual plan, because one of the things they learned from 2004 to 2005 is that if you do it in a quick jolt, you will generate a very strong reaction, some which endures to this day," Borre said.
Eventually all 288 parishes of the archdiocese will be grouped together into 135 collaboratives.
After hearing about the new grouping one parishioner at Our Lady Help of Christians leaned over in the pew and whispered to me, "I hope it works out."
This program aired on January 14, 2013.