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Local Catholic pastors come to terms with lower enrollments, less priests

  • Written by By Joe Boyle

Archbishop Blase Cupich has raised concerns among Catholics about the future of local parishes in the Chicago Archdiocese due to lower enrollments and fewer priests.

But several southwest suburban pastors said that they don't foresee any church closings. However, changes are imminent, the pastors said.

“We had three meetings (with the archbishop),” said the Rev. Lawrence Malcom, pastor of St. Gerald Parish, 9310 S. 55th Court, Oak Lawn. “By 2030 there will only be 260 priests for the archdiocese. We have 370 parishes in the archdiocese. So, in the future, the archdiocese is talking about closing some schools while merging others.”

Malcom does not believe changes will be occurring soon to parishes in Oak Lawn, for instance. He said there is a list of 70 parishes in the archdiocese in which school enrollments are low. Schools with an enrollment of under 200, or under 225 if they offer kindergarten, will be considered for future closings if those numbers do not substantially improve.

The St. Gerald pastor is pleased with the numbers at his parish. School enrollment at St. Gerald is currently at 385.

“It has been steady,” said Malcom. “What's going on here now is that we are having more baptisms. We are having more baptisms than funerals. This is the oldest section of Oak Lawn, so I think a lot of families are coming here because homes are more affordable.”

The Rev. James Hyland, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, 9525 S. Lawndale Ave., Evergreen Park, said that he has also spoken to the archbishop. The parish has to address some issues in the future, he said.

“Do we have financial challenges facing us? Well, yes,” said Hyland. “Enrollment figures are down a bit.”

Hyland does not believe any churches in the area are in danger of closing. But Hyland, who has been at Holy Redeemer the past seven years, said that some parishes in the future may share resources.

“What you might see is more consolidation of programs,” said Hyland. “You could see an area RICA program, for example. Perhaps a regional St. Vincent de Paul Society office could occur. I think you will see more sharing of resources. The parishes may work together more. Some schools in some areas may consolidate.

“But I think the biggest challenge is lower enrollments,” added Hyland. “That is something we have to work on.”

Susan Burritt, spokesperson for the archdiocese, said some changes will occur.

“Some churches will close,” said Burritt. “But that does not mean there will be sweeping changes at all parishes. It may be totally different for some areas of churches.”

Cupich is coming to the grips with sexual abuse claims and the physical state of older buildings, especially in Chicago. Many church pews are far from filled each week. Collections have dipped somewhat from 2014 when they had $215.9 million in 2014. The figures for annual collections for 2015 were $214.4 million, according to a recent archdiocese report.

The Rev. Michael Furlan, pastor of St. Germaine Parish, 9711 S. Kolin Ave., Oak Lawn, said that parish volunteers have been a tremendous asset. He said that there are two priests at St. Germaine and at the four other Oak Lawn parishes. Furlan said many of the priests are older.

“How long can we sustain having two priests at one parish? Some changes will have to take place,” said Furlan. “These are things that can be done with a little collaboration.”

Burritt said that finances are just one of the difficulties. The dwindling number of priests has to be addressed, she said. Furlan agrees but said some realignment could help soften the blow.

Furlan suggests that some priests could say a Mass at another parish. He added that close attention would have to be made to weekly schedules so there are no conflicts.

“Just looking at our parish, we have some of the same volunteers who are very dedicated,” said Furlan. “But we don’t want to burn them out. Maybe we can help by having parishioners from other churches help out here and we can assist others on occasion.”

Burritt said that nearly 250 parishes may need to be reconfigured in the next 14 years, she said.

“It’s more than just finances,” said Burritt. “The dwindling number of priests means that changes will have to take place.”