Erie Diocese unveiling parish restructuring plan

Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico (File photo by Richard Sayer)

The Erie Catholic Diocese is announcing this week its preliminary plan for the restructuring of parishes in the diocese.

The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of Erie, chose not to officially close any church buildings in the diocese as part of the plan.

The first announcement Tuesday evening included changes for parishes in the Northern Vicariate of the diocese, which covers Erie, Forest and Warren counties.

The diocese then met Wednesday with clergy and parish leaders in the Eastern Vicariate (Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter counties), and a meeting is scheduled today for parishioners in the Western Vicariate (Venango, Clarion, Crawford and Mercer 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 merged into existing parishes, two more 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 plan indicates that St. John Parish in Tidioute will remain a stand-alone parish with two churches, the second being St. Anthony Mission in Tionesta as a secondary mission church.

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 diocese said.

Persico explained his decision not to officially close any church buildings.

“I believe strongly that the final decision to close a church building needs to come from within each parish community,” the bishop 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,” Persico 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.

Persico 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.

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.

A Parish Listening Task Force, under the leadership of the Rev. 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 Persico. Siefer is a native of Oil City and St. Joseph Church and a 1966 Venango Christian High School graduate.

The task force relied on considerable demographic data collected from both the government and parishes. Among the key factors:

  • The overall population in the diocese 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.

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, but we can learn to operate within the reality,” Eisert said.

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 onethird of parishes in the United States are now consolidated or linked, and that 27 percent share a pastor with at least one other parish.

Over the summer, 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 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.