The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, confronting the results of a steep membership exodus from city to suburbs in the last three decades, is pushing city parishes to operate more effectively or face merger or even closure.
For many parishes, guaranteeing their future could mean sharing more services and costs -- including paid staff and possibly priests -- with neighboring parishes.
Over the past several months, the 55 parishes and two mission churches in the city have gone through a time of introspection and of setting goals, in which success often depends on finding new ways to collaborate with other parishes.
Each parish is preparing five- and 10-year plans to submit in April to Bishop John H. Ricard, who oversees Baltimore within an archdiocese that extends from the metropolitan area through Western Maryland.
Bishop Ricard has had to contend with city demographics of fewer parishioners -- nearly 57 percent fewer since 1960 -- in grand 19th-century church buildings, costing more to keep up, since he was made a bishop in Baltimore in 1984.
"We were responding to one crisis after another with aging parishes that were built for 10 times the number of people that were coming to Mass," Bishop Ricard said.
When two struggling parishes, St. Katherine of Sienna and SS. James and John, were closed in 1986, "there was a great deal of upset, a great deal of resistance," he said. "It prompted the archdiocese to do some internal reflecting."
The archdiocese wanted to think about what was the best use of church assets -- keeping open a large building for a dwindling congregation or providing more parochial school scholarships, for instance. Of the two parishes closed in 1986, one now houses a Protestant church and the other is a Catholic Charities food distribution center.
The archdiocese also wanted city parishes with declining membership and revenue to have a chance at reversing their fortunes.
Bishop Ricard said parishes would have about five years to succeed or fail in the goals they set for themselves.
The archdiocese has no plans to close any parishes now, he said, but "they know that this is a real possibility."
Another possibility is that some financially strapped parishes may be allowed to struggle on if they serve as the only Catholic presence in neighborhoods of dire need.
Although many parishes flourish in Baltimore, most are affected in some way by the exodus since the 1950s from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Throughout the 1950s, more than 200,000 people were registered in city parishes, accounting for half or more of all Catholics throughout the archdiocese.
Many of those same city communities now are home to a largely black, historically Protestant population. Baltimore opened the first exclusively black parish in the United States in 1864. Bishop Ricard says 16 of the city's 55 parishes now are predominantly black.
In response to these trends, Bishop Ricard and a small group of city priests who advise him developed a set of criteria for what makes a good parish. Besides the usual measures of "buildings, bodies and bucks," the criteria probe for other signs of vitality, such as lively worship, a sense of community and service to the poor and to the neighborhood.
Parishes evaluate themselves against these criteria and point their planning toward achieving them.
Those involved in creating this study say the Baltimore Archdiocese has heeded the outrage and national publicity that accompanied the recent closing of parishes in Chicago and Detroit.
In Baltimore, "We're always a little paranoid every time the archdiocese speaks," said the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence. He is ** part of the group that drafted the criteria and is pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in the heart of downtown.
"As best I can see from the inside, John Ricard is being honest with us, and this is not a game to close parishes," Father Lawrence said. Otherwise, "I would be fighting this process."
The idea is for parishes to fight to survive and flourish instead.
For planning purposes, the city is divided into 10 districts of four to eight parishes each. And the parishes within each district are supposed to devise collaborations that could include sharing the cost of bookkeeping services, for example, or the salary of a director of children's religious education. They also might hold special devotions at only one parish within the district, rather than at each one, to guarantee a larger crowd.
Part of the challenge is for clusters of parishes to collaborate without losing their traditional identities.
Within one of these districts, covering five Southeast Baltimore churches, "none of us are doing too well. We need each other's support," said Mary Bocklage, who has gone to St. Brigid's Church in Canton for all of her 75 years.
Miss Bocklage agrees that working with those other churches, two historically German parishes and two missions, is necessary for survival.
"Things can't keep going the way they are," she says. "Something's got to be done."