Preliminary Plan for Parish Restructuring in the Diocese of Erie Unveiled

plan_stmarysERIE, Pa. – In the first of a three-part announcement to be released in as many days this week, the Preliminary Plan for Parish Restructuring in the Diocese of Erie was announced at a gathering of clergy and parish leaders held at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Erie Tuesday evening.

The first announcement includes changes for parishes in the Northern Vicariate of the diocese, which covers Erie, Forest and Warren counties. On Wednesday, the diocese will meet with parishioners in the Eastern Vicariate, comprising Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter counties, and on Thursday, parishioners in the Western Vicariate will see the plan for parishes in Clarion, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties.

The plan calls for two parish models: the stand-alone parish and the partnered parish.

In addition, a number of parishes will be merged into other parishes, creating either new stand-alone parishes or new partnered parishes. In the Northern Vicariate, four parishes will be “subsumed,” or merged, into existing parishes; two additional parishes will be merged while their church buildings become “secondary mission churches”; three sets of parishes will be partnered; and 23 parishes will remain as either stand-alone parishes or stand-alone parishes that already have secondary mission churches.

“The best pastoral and spiritual care of souls” was cited several times as the driving
force behind pastoral planning, when the changes were announced. To that end, among the main goals of both merging and partnering parishes are:

—creating vibrant parishes with enhanced opportunities for worship
—pooling resources for more effective evangelization and outreach
—ensuring optimum utilization of clergy
—creating efficiencies in operation.

The dwindling number of priests and the rise in their age was a factor in the decision making process, and the plan for the Northern Vicariate alone means nine fewer priests will be needed as pastors. This is essential for planning, as more priests are reaching retirement age, facing health issues or dying.

The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of Erie, chose not to officially close any church buildings in the diocese. “I believe strongly that the final decision to close a church building needs to come from within each parish community,” he said. Parishes that are being merged into other parishes will still have access to their original church buildings for weddings, funerals and select liturgies such as their annual feast day. “Over time, after parishes merge, they may decide it no longer makes sense to maintain additional church buildings,” the bishop said. “They may find they don’t have the resources to keep it up.” At that point, the parish can request that the bishop consider closing their secondary church building.

Despite his conviction concerning the importance of the restructuring plan, Bishop Persico acknowledged that change would be difficult for many. “We all must recognize that change is demanding,” he said. “It disrupts our routine and takes us out of our comfort zone. There may even be feelings of grief as we let go of what we’ve known and loved.” The bishop encouraged patience with the process and said the diocesan Office of Worship is preparing rituals and prayer services parishes can use as they go through this time of transition. Bishop Persico also said he has “every confidence we are responding to what the Lord is asking of us, and we can rely on the graces and guidance we need at this moment.”

The announcement, which addresses one of the five major initiatives of the Pastoral Plan for the Diocese of Erie, is the culmination of more than two years of work. The initiatives include:

—Strengthening Catholic education (Building in Truth and Love, the pastoral plan for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Erie was finalized in February, 2016.)
—Invigorating parishes (The Preliminary Plan for Parish Restructuring in the Diocese of Erie addresses this initiative.)
—Increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life (A full-time director of vocations has been named, and numerous recommendations by the task force for this initiative are being implemented.
—Expanding faith formation (Task forces are working on recommendations for the final two initiatives.)
—Realigning organizational structure.

A Parish Listening Task Force, under the leadership of Msgr. Richard Siefer, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in DuBois, and retired business leader Rosemary Carnovale, of Holy Rosary Parish in Johnsonburg, made the parish restructuring recommendations to Bishop Persico. They relied on considerable demographic data collected from both the government and parishes. Among the key factors:

—The overall population in the diocese of Erie has shrunk by 6.7 percent in the last decade.
—The number of households registered in Catholic parishes has decreased by 19 percent, from 71,491 in 2004 to 59,692 in 2014.
—Mass attendance has decreased 26 percent, from 65,858 in 2006 to 48,696 in 2014.
—Infant baptisms have declined every year for more than a decade. In 2014, there were 768 baptisms, 43 percent fewer than in 2004.

Bishop Persico also consulted with the diocesan Priests Council, which voted on each recommendation, parish by parish. The council overwhelmingly approved the recommended changes. Retired Erie Insurance executive Deacon Marty Eisert, who has been spearheading the pastoral planning effort for the diocese, is participating in the presentations this week. “We can’t change reality,” he said, “but we can learn to operate within the reality.” He said the success of the plan would require change on many levels, including the way Catholics think of their parishes and schools. He noted that fully one–third of parishes in the United States are now consolidated or linked, and that 27 percent share a pastor with at least one other parish.

Deacon Eisert also pointed out that 49 (mostly small) parishes in the Diocese of Erie already share a pastor with at least one other parish. Prior to implementing the plan, the diocese has 116 parishes. The Preliminary Plan for Parish Restructuring in the Diocese of Erie will go through the same process that was used for Building in Truth and Love, the pastoral plan for Catholic schools in the diocese. Individuals and parishes are being invited to provide feedback through a form which will be available on the diocesan website beginning April 15. The deadline for participation is May 20. Meetings will be held in each of the ten deaneries of the diocese by the end of April, to gather additional initial feedback and to help parishes prepare for meaningful participation in the process.

Over the summer, Bishop Persico, the pastoral planning team and the Priests Council will analyze the feedback and make appropriate adjustments. They will coordinate efforts with the Priest Personnel Board, which handles parish assignments for priests. The hope is to announce Bishop Persico’s final decisions on the plan in mid-September. Using guides tailored for the purpose, parishes will then work through a variety of processes depending on if they are merging, partnering or remaining as stand-alone parishes. “We are all in this together,” the bishop said, pointing to the Parish Snapshots each parish completed last year. “They revealed we all have room for improvement and growth.”

Bishop Persico said he expects every parish, even those that are remaining as stand-alone parishes with no changes for now, to participate in the feedback sessions. The bishop also said the process that has been developed will be used for years to come, as demographics and cultur-al trends continue to impact the life of the Catholic Church in northwest Pennsylvania. “Planning needs to be part of our mindset,” he said. “Change shows we are alive and responding to the needs of our time.”

Feedback forms will be available on this web site beginning Friday, April 15.

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