More than 150 communicants from Warwick’s 10 Catholic parishes squeezed into Hendricken’s Founders Hall Wednesday night to consider a future that bodes fewer parishioners, less funds and a lack of priests.
“The train is on the track and we’ve been seeing it coming for 20 years,” said Father Robert Marciano, pastor of St. Kevin Church at the conclusion of the 90-minute long “town hall” meeting. Warwick Catholic churches have already taken steps to face the challenges. St. Rose of Lima and St. Clement merged and, as Father Marciano says, the combined parish is stronger for it.
But other parishes are faltering.
Msgr. Raymond Bastia, vicar for finances and planning at the Diocese of Providence, confirmed reports that St. William Church is closing with the final mass planned for Easter Sunday. Yet, he added, the final status of the church “remains to be evaluated.”
Msgr. Bastia and Sean Henseler, a 1984 Hendricken graduate and Naval officer for 21 years who is spearheading regional planning meetings, emphasized that Bishop Thomas Tobin is seeking parishioner input on the future of neighborhood churches.
“It’s not a top down decision,” Rebecca Page Perez, manager of the diocese office for pastoral planning, said in opening remarks. She said the aim is to fill pews and to have people feel they are welcome.
Henseler did not blame the audience for “automatically thinking this is about closing churches, but that’s not what it is.”
Henseler’s summation of diocesan statistics underscores the issues. He said mass attendance (for a single Sunday in November) was 126,900 in 2005 as compared to 105,100 in 2013. In 1975 64 percent of Rhode Island births were baptized as Catholics. In 2012 it was 28 percent. Also, in 1975, 52 percent of Rhode Island marriages were in Catholic churches. By 2012 the number had dropped to 16 percent.
The diocese also faces a shortage of priests. Henseler said there are 18 seminarians in line for the priesthood. Yet 63 priests are eligible for retirement in the next eight years, leaving a loss of 45 priests.
Referencing a November 2015 letter from Bishop Tobin, Henseler said the goal of a pastoral plan is to have vibrant parishes.
“The point is, the bishop wants to involve everybody,” he said.
Reading from Bishop Tobin’s letter, Henseler said considerations regional groups should make include, “how can the parishes collaborate with one another; which parishes might be affiliated with another; how many parishes are actually needed for the region; are some parishes no longer viable?”
The call is for volunteers from two, three and four parishes to start meeting over the next several weeks to explore ways they might collaborate and even merge so as to share resources, operate more efficiently, bring in new parishioners and extend the church mission.
The diocese started the first of the regional pastoral planning in West Warwick and Coventry a year ago. The process has likewise started in Woonsocket. Henseler said there was some adamant resistance with some priests refusing to collaborate. Nonetheless, he said those participating successfully identified scores of indicators of a viable parish from the number of registered families (900 being a threshold), to music ministry, lack of debt, youth ministry and outreach ministry that provide a helpful guide for others working on a pastoral plan. Some of the means parishes are collaborating include sharing a priest, staffs and coordinating events, such as bazaars, between multiple parishes.
Looking at the packed hall, Father Marciano concluded, “The good news is that the Warwick Catholic community is alive and well.” He said that he and Father Roland Simoneau, pastor of St. Benedict Church, who is retiring this year, are “sharing opportunities on how we can come together.”
“This is a challenge that God wants us to take on,” said Father Andrew Messina, pastor of St. Timothy. Father Messina offered three observations as parishioners started the planning process. He urged that they don’t shoot from the hip and “think this through;” to pray to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and to recognize “we have great talent among us.”
The evening produced mixed reactions.
Lorie Earnshaw, a parishioner at St. Benedict, sees consolidation as a good thing. “We need to combine,” she said, “I would like to see more come in [to church].”
St. Timothy parishioner Frank Kernan called the effort “long overdue.”
“It’s right sizing and it can work,” he said.
St. Rita Church parishioner Ted Sarno scanned the room and declared, “We’re looking at the problem.” He observed that most of the people in attendance were between 65 and 70 years old and the church isn’t attracting today’s young families as it once did.