Spanish-speaking parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help were somber when they heard Oct. 23 and 24 that major financial concerns and population shifts had led a planning team to recommend merging a cluster of five northeast Rochester churches into a single parish with three worship sites: Light of Christ at Church of the Annunciation, 1754 Norton St.; Our Lady of the Americas, 864 E. Main St.; and St. Michael, 869 N. Clinton Ave.
If approved by Bishop Matthew H. Clark and the diocesan Presbyteral Council, the recommendation would lead to the closure of Light of Christ at St. Andrew, 923 Portland Ave., and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 1089 Joseph Ave. But planners noted that the closings would allow all the existing ministries of all five parishes to be maintained, and also would allow for ministries to be expanded or replicated in other locations, said Deb Housel, a diocesan pastoral-planning liaison who is coadministrator of the cluster.
"Our main goal is debt reduction and to not lose but to enhance and to add to outreach ministries in the city," Housel said. "The only way we can do that is … to give up buildings."
Yet members of the Hispanic community are worried about whether there will be enough Spanish-language Masses to meet the needs of the entire Spanish-speaking community, and whether transportation needs will create a barrier to attendance, according to Deacon José Berrios, a deacon and parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
The cluster planners have proposed a schedule of six Masses, including some in English and some in Spanish, and a seventh Mass that would be geared for youths of the parish. Members of the planning team said at Masses Oct. 23 and 24 that the specifics of a reduced Mass schedule would be worked out after Bishop Clark responded to the proposal.
Deacon Berrios said that he has reminded several people struggling with the idea of change that the alternative is far worse. Planning-team members noted during Masses Oct. 23 and 24 that if action is not taken, all five parishes could close within 18 months.
"At least we have a place left to go," he said. "Unfortunately, because of the financial struggle, our buildings are getting too old. There are other factors affecting this."
Deacon Berrios said that he has suggested to several people that they consider what God’s plan is and how the proposal reflects changes seen throughout the City of Rochester.
"Nobody likes changes, but it all depends on how you take those changes," he said. "Is this an opportunity to try something new, or are you going to consider yourself defeated?"
Pressing issues facing the five parishes were first outlined in a letter read at Masses June 26 and 27. In that letter, Bishop Clark noted that declining attendance, population shifts, high operational costs for buildings and severe financial stresses motivated a committee of clergy and lay people to plan together how to best serve the northeast area of Rochester.
"It is my hope that such a combined planning effort … will result in a creative, financially sustainable plan to deal with the current realities — a plan that will look at various scenarios and configurations, new models of Church and the best ways of ministering in this area of considerable need," Bishop Clark wrote.
Also in June, Housel and Father Paul Gitau were appointed to one-year terms as coadministrators of the clustered parishes. Housel said that a committee made up of four representatives from each parish outlined priorities. Maintaining outreach was ranked first, reducing the debt was second, and staffing and buildings ranked in third place.
Housel said that planners are still working to determine what configuration of buildings would be best for the parishes’ ministries, and are considering continued use of buildings that belonged to parishes that were previously closed. Unused rooms in rectories and other facilities are being considered for expansion or relocations of ministries.
As one example, she said that some planners have suggested adding at St. Michael a teen drop-in center that would replicate a successful neighborhood-outreach program at Light of Christ at St. Andrew.
She said money also would be set aside to renovate Church of the Annunciation and make it wheelchair accessible. A reduction in staff serving the cluster also is planned, but a new pastoral associate position would be created to coordinate outreach ministries. If the recommendations are approved, the cluster would then set a time frame for implementation.
The merger recommendation comes as the diocese kicks off a new Urban Initiative, which aims to promote new models of faith communities; coordinate attention to social justice; foster partnerships among urban, suburban and rural parishes; and establish ongoing structures for collaboration and learning.
According to a memo from diocesan Parish Support Ministries, the initiative will involve small groups identifying pilot projects to address those goals. After receiving approval from Bishop Clark, the pilot projects would be implemented in the next two to three years to drive change and be replicated in multiple locations.
Housel and the planning team said that they hoped that longtime parishioners will not abandon the city churches due to the changes, even though the plans may be difficult to accept.
"We pray that all of the parishes will work together in order to work through these difficult changes," noted a statement from the planning group.
Parishioners at St. Andrew and Our Lady of Perpetual Help expressed regret at the announcement, but they said that they had anticipated it.
"It wasn’t unexpected, but we didn’t see it coming that fast," said Gary Knights, a 61-year parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who has been involved with the pastoral council but was not a part of the planning team.
Knights said that he speculated that Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Light of Christ at St. Andrew churches probably would be easiest to sell as compared to the other churches in the cluster. He said that another factor that may have counted against Our Lady of Perpetual Help is its proximity to St. Stanislaus Church, a Polish parish in the planning group that was not part of the parish cluster.
"We’re all basically in the same boat in that we are in a poor area, but unfortunately for our particular parish, we are a stone’s throw away from St. Stan’s," said Knights, who noted that he would most likely attend St. Stanislaus if his parish were to close.
At Light of Christ Parish at St. Andrew on Oct. 24, several parishioners said they, too, had anticipated the announcement.
"We had the feeling that this was going to happen," said Joe Schwan, who has attended St. Andrew for more than 60 years. "The church is very expensive to run, as much as we love it."
He noted that St. Andrew has been an anchor for the neighborhood around it, and its closing will be a loss for the entire area.
"With any difficult decision, good or bad, we’re Christians," said Light of Christ parishioner Amanuel Malik. "We have to accept it with faith that God has something good in store for us. Meanwhile, as we are human beings, we have to go through the heartbroken experience, but I’m sure God is on our side."