At least 38 churches, including two in Naugatuck, across the Archdiocese of Hartford are being considered for closure and another 60 parishes to be limited to worship sites as leaders seek to consolidate and strengthen the shrinking faith.
A document recently obtained by The Sunday Republican details a recent draft of the Archdiocese’s evolving plan for its 212 parishes.
Under the draft plan, churches that remain open would be reorganized into new “pastorates” — often sharing a common pastor and lay leadership.
“We don’t have the priests to have someone say Mass in a church for 20 people when the church seats thousands,” said the Rev. James Shanley, vicar of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Planning. “We are going to have half the number of priests we have now in 12 years.”
The current plan would reorganize the archdiocese’s parishes into 114 pastorates. Some of these would cover multiple church buildings with a single pastor, at least one associate pastor, a single secretary, single religious program and single board of trustees.
Shanley called the organization “much more efficient.” Priests would be able to spend more time ministering to their parishes, rather than rushing from church to church. Many churches would remain open for sacraments and worship, while the parochial center would be in a nearby church.
Shanley expects much of the plan to be finalized and publicized in 2017. It might take some additional time to fulfill. He said the Archdiocese’s effort is similar to one recently completed in Philadelphia.
“The parishes are much, much stronger and there’s a whole new life,” Shanley said. “The money is not being wasted. The staff is not being wasted. People are really planning for the future. People can spend money on things that are really important, not on buildings that are falling apart and are really too big.”
Shanley cautioned the document leaked to the newspaper is one iteration of a plan that will likely be modified. On its website, the Office of Pastoral Planning stresses no final decisions have been reached, and won’t be until the first quarter of 2017 “at the earliest.”
The draft does, however, provide insight into the path church officials are considering.
In the Greater Waterbury and Litchfield County area, churches considered for closure are concentrated in the urban centers, where Catholic churches proliferated in the early to mid-1900s to serve various burgeoning immigrant groups.
Under the draft plan, Naugatuck would lose St. Hedwig and St. Mary churches. The borough hosts four Catholic churches.
St. Hedwig at 32 Golden Hill St. in Naugatuck was established in 1906. Attendance at October masses dropped from 273 in 2010 to 233 in 2014, according to an April 2016 report produced for the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Pastoral Planning.
The report lists the church as “requiring additional study.” A more recent spreadsheet detailing one possible version of plans for dwindling resources lists St. Hedwig as “closing.”
St. Mary Church, 338 N. Main St., Naugatuck, was established in 1907. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of registered Catholic households in the parish fell 43 percent, from 200 to 114, according to the report. Attendance at October weekend masses rose from 138 to 190 between 2010 and 2014.
The reports lists St. Mary as “low probability to remain as is.” The more recent spreadsheet lists St. Mary as “closing.”
The draft plan calls for closure of four of 17 churches in Waterbury: St. Lucy, St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Joseph and St. Margaret churches are listed as “closing.” At St. Francis Xavier, the plan says a “decision is needed when pastor retires.”
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Anne, SS. Peter & Paul and St. Patrick would be retained as parochial centers. The remainder are labeled “worship sites,” places where Mass and other services will still be held, but a priest will not be on site full time.
Shanley said the final plan won’t be revealed in a single instant. He anticipates a succession of announcements as plans for individual parishes and parish groupings are finalized.
Legally, church leaders can insist on closures and church reorganization, Shanley acknowledged. But he said that’s unlikely. Church leaders are trying to strengthen the faith, he said. Local laity will continue to be consulted, he said.
“There’s going to be very, very, few buildings that are closed and sold,” Shanely said.
Those sales will be “a local decision” and the buildings will go to purposes consistent with Catholic faith, Shanley said. That might mean turning over sanctuaries to other faiths, or for use as a public school or community center, he said. They won’t be sold for use as restaurants or bars, he said.
“We are not going to sell — unless we are really desperate — so they can build a million condos,” Shanley said.
Andrew Walsh, associate director of Trinity College’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, said religious and American civil law give bishops ultimate authority to dispose of parish properties.
“There may be parishes that hold the deed, but they hold it for him,” Walsh said. “So he can say, in the final analysis, buy or sell.”
Bishops also hold another major lever of control. They can assign or withdraw priests, Walsh said.
While enormous power is vested in bishops, Walsh doesn’t expect Archbishop Leonard Blair to undertake the consolidation in a heavy-handed manner.
“Archbishop Blair doesn’t seem to be anxious to portray himself as a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ guy,” Walsh said. The current archbishop is a sophisticated figure. Like many he’s trying to live in the age of (Pope) Francis. This kind of consultation is what the Pope is asking for.”
Bruno Matarazzo Jr. and Jonathan Shugarts contributed to this report.