When more than 150 people met at Hendricken High School early this year to talk about the future of their church, there were 10 Catholic parishes in Warwick. Less than eight months later there are nine. St. William Church held its final service on Easter Sunday.
But it would be a mistake to assume this is the path for other parishes.
To the contrary, since that meeting at the urging of the Catholic Diocese of Providence, Warwick parishes have explored ways to deal with the decline in priests and parishioners by sharing resources. So far, says Father Robert Marciano, who hosted a dinner meeting attended by about 60 people from all nine parishes about three weeks ago, it’s working.
“It was great, very positive,” said Father Marciano. “The pastors left feeling there were solutions.”
Since that meeting at Hendricken, each of the Warwick parishes formed committees that have met monthly to explore ways they can work together. The emphasis has been on identifying strengths of a particular parish such as the Summer Bible Camp at St. Peter and how that program could serve other parishes.
Father Marciano, pastor of St. Kevin, is now saying mass at St. Benedict following the retirement of Father Roland Simoneau this summer. The number of masses conducted weekly at St. Benedict has been reduced, but attendance at masses has improved and remarkably, as Father Marciano notes, so have collections.
The St. Kevin/St. Benedict affiliation isn’t a first for Warwick. St. Clement and St. Rose of Lima merged several years ago. More affiliations, if not mergers, are being talked about, although, as of this point, according to Rebecca Page Perez, manager of the diocese office for pastoral planning, nothing is finalized.
“Everybody is on the same page. It was great,” Page Perez said of the recent meeting.
She terms the relationship between St. Kevin and St. Benedict as “yoking,” where the two parishes are distinct yet pulling together when it comes to sharing a priest, social events and programs such as youth religious education. While the two parishes are substantially different in size – St. Benedict has 450 communicants and St. Kevin 2,000, said Father Marciano – each has resources.
“Small doesn’t mean weak,” said Father Marciano. Yet the numbers become important to events. Father Marciano cites the Nov. 2 Mass of Remembrance where the parishes combined to honor parishioners who died in the past year. In the case of St. Kevin it was 65 deaths. There were 21 at St. Benedict. Father Marciano felt had there been separate masses, there wouldn’t have been the same impact.
On a brighter note, there is a combined church choir of 60 voices.
Looking at the larger diocesan picture, Page Perez said, “Yoking could be a possibility for the future.” A concern, she said, is that parishes not feel they are being forced into a situation yet, with fewer priests and resources, there needs to be action.
“We don’t want people to go into a panic,” she said.
The diocese started the process of regionally looking at parishes about two years ago, initiating similar discussions between parishes in West Warwick, Woonsocket and Westerly.
In a letter to parishes participating in the planning process, Bishop Thomas Tobin asked they consider, “How can the parishes collaborate with one another; which parishes might be affiliated with another; how many parishes are actually needed for the region; are some parishes no longer viable?”
In the case of St. William, where indebtedness and declining parishioners were factors in closing, the geographic area covered by St. William has been divided between St. Timothy and St. Peter.
Page Perez says the attitude of the priest is critical to the success of sharing and yoking.
“There are a few priests whose personality can handle it,” Page Perez said.
The fundamental issue is that the diocese lacks sufficient priests for its 136 parishes and the future doesn’t appear brighter.
In an email Father Timothy Reilly, Chancellor of the Diocese of Providence, said that priests are eligible for retirement at 70.
“In particular cases, many priests reach ‘retirement age’ and generously offer to remain in the active ministry. However, recent projections show that between 2018-2021, over 30 priests will reach retirement age. In the same timeframe, projections show only eight new priests will be ordained,” he reported. He said that approximately 125 priests are in parish assignments, with about 15 of them serving two or more parishes.
A picture of the decline in the Catholic church was offered at the meeting last year. Data provided showed that mass attendance for a single Sunday in November was 126,900 in 2005 as compared to 105,100 in 2013. In 1975, 64 percent of Rhode Island births were baptized as Catholics. In 2012 it was 28 percent. Also, in 1975, 52 percent of Rhode Island marriages were in Catholic churches. By 2012 the number had dropped to 16 percent.
In Warwick Page Perez said St. Gregory the Great has agreed to help address a shortage of priests to make visits to hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. According to Father Marciano, there are overtures between other Warwick parishes, with St. Timothy and St. Rita working on youth programs and longer-term relationships between St. Francis, St. Catherine and St. Clement.
Father Marciano is encouraged by the St. Kevin/St. Benedict combination. He even sees opportunity for growth, although some of his ideas are new to the diocese. Remarking on the condition of the 12-room former St. Benedict School and the fact it is going unused, he suggests it could become a parochial middle school.
Actions planned by parishes need to be reviewed by the Diocese Pastoral Planning Committee and approved by the bishop, Page Perez said. She also said that the committee conducts a “wellness check” of pastors serving more than a single parish to determine if they need assistance and assess how they are bearing up physically and spiritually. Those combined parishes that are working provide “examples to others of what can work.”
She is encouraged by the sense of community she is seeing. She’s not alone.
In a statement, Father Andrew Messina, pastor of St. Timothy, said he continues to be “very happy to be involved with the process. I’m looking forward to a very bright future for Warwick Catholic parishes.”
For Father Marciano, the future of the church is in the parishes.
“It is up to us to have a vision and to lead,” he said.