Endangered parishes

May 23, 1994

Church steeples are so much a part of the Baltimore skyline that most of us take them for granted. Those spires point to the skies, but beneath them worldly concerns are as real as anywhere. That truth has been brought home again with announcements in recent days that the Archdiocese of Baltimore is considering closing a number of urban parishes. In a city where waves of Catholic immigrants built churches that served as the center of European-style neighborhoods, that list inevitably includes parishes with rich histories and notable architecture.

Even so, the reasons for these painful decisions are obvious. In 1960, roughly 203,000 Catholics were attending city parishes. By 1992, the exodus to the suburbs had taken its toll and that number had dropped by more than half, to 88,000. But unlike many Protestant denominations, whose governance structures aren't as conducive to shifting financial resources from parish to parish, the archdiocese was able to nurse many urban parishes along for many years.

Despite the drastic drop in attendees during the past three decades, the number of Catholic churches in the city fell only about 15 percent, from 67 to 57. Although a third of them are considered underused, no Catholic church in the city has been closed since 1986. Now, painful as they may be, these decisions are becoming unavoidable. As archdiocesan officials point out, the issue becomes a matter of stewardship. As city churches have lost members, suburban parishes have grown dramatically and are hungry for resources to reach out to increasing numbers of Catholics there. Membership in the archdiocese as a whole has grown over the past three decades.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the recent announcements is the manner in which the decisions are being made. Instead of the seemingly arbitrary, top-down pronouncements that stirred so much anger in other cities -- and, to some extent, in Baltimore in 1986 -- this process is bottom-up. It takes more careful account of the wide range of factors that make up the life and mission of any church -- not just attendance, financial strength and the condition of its facilities, but also the vitality of its worship services, the effectiveness of its religious education, its presence in the community, proximity to other underused churches and so on.

The current list of endangered parishes is not final. Some churches may be kept open by twinning them with other nearby parishes. And even those that close may find new lives housing growing congregations of other denominations. Churches breathe life into neighborhoods, but, like neighborhoods, they can also face the choice of changing or fading away.

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