SHREWSBURY — After 18 months of waiting, Catholics will soon learn the fate of their priests and parishes in the sweeping reorganization of the Archdiocese of St. Louis called “All Things New.”
The changes, expected to include dozens of parish mergers and priest reassignments, will be released Saturday by Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski in a press conference and announced by priests during weekend Mass. More details are expected in early June, including new Mass times and worship sites for consolidated parishes.
Of the 178 parishes across St. Louis city and 10 surrounding counties, about 40 are expected to keep their parish boundaries. The other 140 or so parishes will be bundled into “pastorates,” groups of two or more parishes that share one pastor.
The number of priests retiring or moving this summer is expected to be much higher than average, in part because of a pause during the “All Things New” process.
Other cities undergoing similar reorganizations offer keys to the future of parishes in St. Louis, including several dioceses that used the same consulting firm, Catholic Leadership Institute.
The process plays out in a similar fashion in each diocese. Parishes are first grouped together to share resources, Mass times and a pastor. New planning committees form to determine the best structure for each group, which could eventually lead to mergers or closures of parishes and schools.
• The Diocese of Buffalo (N.Y.) announced a record-high 47 priest reassignments on Wednesday in its “Road to Renewal” plan that previously formed 36 “families” of multiple parishes.
• The “Beacons of Light” plan in Cincinnati last year combined 208 parishes into 57 families of parishes along with 78 priest reassignments. The number of Sunday masses in the archdiocese dropped to 512 from 588 in 2019. Mass attendance increased by 6% from 2021 to 2022, although still down 19% overall from 2019.
• Archbishop Allen Vigneron announced Detroit’s plan to move all parishes into families on Pentecost Sunday in 2020. There, 216 parishes were grouped into 51 families.
• The Pittsburgh diocese combined 188 parishes into 57 groups in 2018 as part of its “On Mission for the Church Alive” strategic plan. In the five years since, most of the groups have merged to form 62 single parishes under new names “as part of the ongoing effort designed to help parishes mobilize their resources to prioritize mission over maintenance,” according to the Pittsburgh diocese.
• The “Renew My Church” downsizing in Chicago started in 2016 and has since seen 344 parishes consolidate into around 200.
• In Boston, the “Disciples in Mission” pastoral plan was launched in 2012, and implemented with the help of Catholic Leadership Institute. The 288 parishes were organized into 135 parish collaboratives.
“All Things New” started in St. Louis in January 2022, when Rozanski announced the 18-month process that would bring “the most sweeping changes” in the 200-year history of the Catholic church in St. Louis amid declining numbers of Catholics attending Mass and priests to serve them.
On Saturday, five men will be ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, down from an average of 18 ordinations a year in the 1960s. The Catholic population in the region has fallen below 500,000 in 2021 for the first time in half a century. Pews are only about one-quarter full on Sundays.
“The model that fulfilled its mission in growing and evangelizing the Church during the last century has become archaic,” Rozanski wrote in a January 2022 letter to parishioners. “Jesus is calling on us to re-energize and reshape our efforts to share His saving message.”
What comes next
Some parishes have already started looking ahead toward their new pastorates. Parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Luke the Evangelist will come together on Monday for the annual “Mass on the Grass” Memorial Day service at St. Luke’s field in Richmond Heights.
One parish that is likely to stay independent is making plans for major renovations that were put on hold during the “All Things New” process.
“Our challenge is not about needing to merge with another parish but to accommodate our prosperity and to address the limitations of our facilities,” reads a letter sent earlier this month to parishioners from the Rev. Matthew O’Toole of St. Peter in Kirkwood.
Plans at St. Peter include four main goals, O’Toole said — a new parish hall with a commercial kitchen for large events, expansion of school buildings, additional meeting and storage spaces and a new rectory for priest housing.
The plans have been approved by Rozanski and the church is working with BSI Constructors on the plans, O’Toole said.
Meanwhile, plans to fight against “All Things New” are also gaining steam. Dozens of parish groups like Friends of St. Paul plan to appeal any merger to the Vatican. The latest proposal shows St. Paul parish joining with St. Joseph in western St. Charles County, a move the group opposes out of “concern for the preservation of our historic and cultural patrimony,” according to its website.
Former state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, is leading an archdiocesan-wide protest as procurator, or representative, of the laity under church canon law. Onder sent petitions signed by more than 3,100 Catholics from at least 120 parishes to the Vatican earlier this month.
The “All Things New” initiative “violates the legitimate structures of parishes, the rights and obligations of pastors, the rights of the lay faithful and offends the unity of the Church by encouraging parishes to compete for survival and foments mistrust of ecclesiastical authority,” Onder wrote in a May 10 letter to Vatican leaders pleading for Pope Francis to suspend the plan’s implementation.
Still, some parishioners say they are optimistic about the prospect of fuller pews and stronger ministries.
“It doesn’t matter what building you’re in, what matters is your faith and growing in that desire to be closer to God and the Mass can help you do that,” said Jennifer Crutchley, a 20-year member of St. John the Beloved Disciple in Imperial, which is likely to be grouped with St. Joseph in Imperial.
“The real work begins after Pentecost Sunday,” Crutchley said. “It needs to be the entire community pulling together. I’m hopeful that when the dust settles we can all come out stronger on the other end.”