Archdiocese discusses merging parishes in Bridgeport, Canaryville, Chinatown
June 1, 2018

Photo by Christopher Valentino
St. Gabriel Church (above) may be merged, and parishioners like Valerie Trentz feel shocked and saddened.

By Madeline Makoul

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago is looking to merge eight parishes across Bridgeport, Canaryville and Chinatown.

This upcoming consolidation is part of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s initiative “Renew My Church,” the Rev. Jason Malave, the cardinal’s liaison for Renew My Church explained. He noted that with 97 groupings of parishes across the Chicago area, Renew My Church is designed to consolidate these groupings even more, to better save money and resources, as well as strengthen the Catholic community.

“Renew My Church focuses on making disciples, building communities, and inspiring witnes-ses,” Fr. Malave said. “Disciples is the evangelizing renewal, building communities is the structural renewal, and inspiring witness is really what happens if we do the first two things well. When we have strong communities, that inspires the world around us – it transforms the world around us.”

The latest discussion of a merge involves St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church, All Saints – St. Anthony, St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church, Santa Lucia – Santa Maria Incoronata, St. Barbara, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, Nativity of our Lord, and St. Gabriel. Malave said this grouping is facing challenges that many other parishes across the archdiocese are facing – for example, there are many buildings but “nowhere near the amount of people” who used to come to the parishes, aging infrastructure, a lack of resources, and a “radical shortage” of priests.

The issues facing these eight parishes are common not only across the country, but across Europe as well, said Brian Schmisek, dean of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago. With parishes that were built more than 100 years ago, demographics have changed, causing the archdiocese to re-evaluate how many parishes are needed, Schmisek said.

“We don’t want the parishes to be museums; we want them to be active communities where people worship and pray and build one another up, so that’s what they are aiming for in this renewal process,” Schmisek said.

As the archdiocese looks to strengthen these eight parishes, discussions have already begun in regards to how each parish will change.

Photo by Christopher Valentino
St. Mary of Perpetual Help on 32nd Street is one of the Roman Catholic parishes under consideration for a merger with others.

Details of the merge

With changing demographics and the Mass attendance diminishing, the archdiocese presented five initial scenarios outlining the fate of the eight Bridgeport-area parishes.

In each scenario, the parishes are clustered together to form anywhere from two to four larger parishes. Fr. Malave explained that the process is more of a merging of staff as new groupings would allow for one pastor to look over multiple worship sites, better allocating their resources for more people. Especially in parishes with lower numbers of attendees, the merge will help to bring more people together, maintaining the vitality of the church, Fr. Malave said.

“What we have seen in other areas and groupings that have gone through this process is that people see their Catholic family as larger than they had before,” Fr. Malave said. “Many people who pray every Sunday will see their community as those in their parish, but when uniting to another parish, people are shown the strength and support of their larger Catholic community.”

With the shortage of priests and a change in demographics, Fr. Malave said it’s important that they reevaluate the typical Chicago model of one pastor on one campus serving one church community. Instead, Fr. Malave said this merge can result in one pastor looking over two campuses, joining the staff together across parishes.

The allocation of resources is also important in terms of the schools associated with the parishes as they too will merge in the different scenarios. The merging of the Catholic schools, which would not take place until the 2019-2020 school year, will help increase schools vitality in terms of both academic experience and finances, Fr. Malave said. A great deal of this vitality depends on having a “good cohort” of students, something Fr. Malave believes will strengthen if schools unite.

Though Fr. Malave said this merge should be thought of as more of a “uniting” as the process would result in more of a “joining together” than a closing of various worship sites, there are some parishes and schools that could close as a result.

“In almost all cases there is a uniting that will be happening, but in some cases there will not only be a uniting but also a potential closure of one of the previous sites,” Fr. Malave explained. “We look at two parishes united with one pastoral team where there’s enough people to maintain two worship sites, but in some cases there still won’t be enough of a community of believers to maintain two sites.”

The community’s response

As the Archdiocese of Chicago continues to focus on consolidating the Roman Catholic community, community members are concerned about the changes that will take place at the parishes they have attended for generations.

Valerie Trentz is one of these community members, as her connection to St. Gabriel began with her mother and has continued through her and her grandchildren. Trentz, whose grandchildren attend St. Gabriel Catholic School, said that even though parishioners and were warned almost two years ago of the possible merge, it still comes as a shock.

Trentz’s daughter still has children in school at St. Gabriel, and living just a few doors down from school has made the commute easy on the single mother. However, in many scenarios, St. Gabriel School will merge with another Catholic school, forcing parents such as Trentz’s daughter to find new transportation methods for their children.

“We literally live right down the street from the school, so he [her grandson] can go to school easily,” Trentz said. “Now she [Trentz’s daughter] has to worry about how she will get him to another school – will they have to hire someone to pick him up and take him to school? Tuition is already high enough.”

As families are faced with these new challenges, people like Trentz also have deep emotional ties to their parish. Trentz described the great milestones that have taken place at St. Gabriel throughout the generations of her family – a place that not only held her mother’s wedding, but her sister’s too, as well as the confirmations of many family members.

“Emotions are going to be involved,” Trentz said. “This is your neighborhood, this is where you’ve gone your entire life and this is the only church you know. It’s going to be devastating either way it goes.”

However, Trentz does recognize that families have gotten smaller through the generations, a fact that effects church attendance. Families that may have once had seven children now only have two, Trentz notes. As the attendance gets smaller, it’s harder to maintain the vitality, Fr. Malave said.

Schmisek also recognizes that this process can be hard for those connected to the parishes, but said he believes the Renew My Church process is good and the changes being made across the archdiocese “need to be done.”

“It’s painful for some people who have significant ties to their particular parish and I would never make light of that, these parishes have a lot of meaning to people,” Schmisek said. “On the other hand, some of these parishes could be working together which is why they are being combined.”

Irene O’Neill, who has been a parishioner at Nativity of Our Lord Parish since its last consolidation around 1991, said while it will be “heartbreaking” for those who belong to a parish that faces closure, she believes most people see this uniting as an “inevitable change.”

O’Neill, who notes that there haven’t been enough priests to allow every parish to function independently, said she thinks the idea to share one priest across two parishes is a good solution to a lack of resources. That being said, with the Bridgeport parishes dating back 100 years, O’Neill recognizes that the ties parishioners like Trentz have are strong.

“Many people are heartbroken at the loss of something that goes so deep,” O’Neill said. “It’s easy for someone like me to say ‘remember, we are worshipping God, not a building’ which is true, but that denies all the feelings and family history intertwined with the worship of our God.”

However, O’Neill is hopeful that this upcoming merge will help enhance worship in the Bridgeport area. O’Neill said, given the right “shepherd,” the people from the parishes that are united will have a chance to connect with a broader community.

“My guess is that because the roots of this community are deep, and the friendships [are] strong, that Bridgeport will be as strong as ever, maybe stronger, when all is said and done,” O’Neill said.    

No decision has been made on the consolidation of the Bridgeport-area parish group, and different scenarios will continue to be brainstormed in upcoming discussions. However, as Fr. Malave explained, a merge will occur in some capacity no matter what as the Archdiocese of Chicago remains focused on sustaining the community’s places of worship. 

“The real goal is to increase the vitality,” Fr. Malave said. “Our goal is to live our faith, share out faith and invite others to join our faith with us.”

The archdiocese encourages parishioners to come to community meetings to provide their input on merger issues. According to a spokesperson from the archdiocese, meetings to discuss the Renew My Church process and parish mergers are shared via notices in church bulletins and Mass announcements. Some parishes may also publish meeting notices on their websites and social media.

The various scenarios the archdiocese is considering for the eight parishes could result in two, three, or four parishes.

All Saints-St. Anthony is at 518 W. 28th Pl., (312) 842-2744, https://assaparish.org. Nativity of Our Lord is at 653 W. 37th St., (773) 927-6263, www.nativitybridgeport.org. St. Barbara is at 2859 S. Throop St., (312) 842-7979, https://stbarbarachicago.org. St. Gabriel is at 4522 S. Wallace St., (773) 268-9595, www.stgabes.com. St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church is at 2823 S. Princeton Ave., (312) 842-1871, www.stjeromecroatian.org. St. Mary of Perpetual Help is at 1039 W. 32nd St., (773) 927-6646, www.stmaryofperpetualhelp.com. St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church is at 218 W. Alexander St., (312) 842-6777, www.sttheresechinatown.org. Santa Lucia-Santa Maria Incoronata is at 3022 S. Wells St., (312) 842-6115, https://santaluciachicago.org.

For more on the Archdiocese of Chicago, log on to www.archchicago.org.