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Bishop announces massive Diocese shakeup

By KIM MULFORD and JIM WALSH | Courier Post | Apr 3, 2008

The Camden Diocese plans to slash its number of parishes from 124 to 66, Bishop Joseph Galante has announced.

Under a restructuring program, the diocese will consist of 38 merged parishes, three "clusters" involving six parishes and 22 stand-alone parishes, Galante said at a press conference today.

The changes will occur over the next one to two years, he said.

Galante said the number of "worship sites" will vary - with some serving as "primary, year-round sites" and others in use as secondary sites, mission sites or in summer months at the Jersey Shore.

"While Catholic population is increasing overall, in many instances it has shifted out of former Catholic populations centers into other parts of the diocese, leaving behind parish facilities that are in close proximity to each other, but are now under-utilized and aging," he said.

In Camden, the consolidation would merge two neighborhood parishes - Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Fatima in South Camden and Holy Name in North Camden - into a parish based at the downtown Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Fatima had protested outside diocesan headquarters in an effort to prevent that merger.

In addition, St. Joan of Arc and St. Bartholomew would merge into a cluster with Sacred Heart parish in Waterfront South.

And St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden would merge with St. Cecelia and St. Veronica.Two Camden parishes - St. Anthony and St. Joseph - would remain as stand-alone institutions.

Mergers will affect four parishes in Cherry Hill.

Queen of Heaven is to join with nearby St. Peter Celestine on the town's west side, while St Pius X (west side) will join with Holy Rosary on the east side.

In addition, St. Mary parish is to be clustered with St. Thomas More.

Other mergers in Camden County:

  • St John and Transfiguration, both in Collingswood will join with Holy Saviour in Westmont.
  • St. Aloysius of Oaklyn and St. Vincent Pallotti of Haddon Township.
  • Also Sacred Heart in Mount Ephraim with Holy Maternity in Audubon.
  • Annunciation of Bellmawr is to join St. Anne of Westville and St. Maurice of Brooklawn.Standing alone would be St. Peter, St Stephen, Immaculate Heart and St. Mary of Gloucester City, the oldest parish in the diocese.

More mergers:

  • St. Lawrence of Lindenwold joins St. Luke of Stratford and Our Lady of Grace in Somerdale.
  • Mary Mother of the Church in Bellmawr joins St. Francis de Sales in Barrington and St. Gregory in Magnolia.
  • St. Maria Goretta of Barrington joins St. Teresa of Runnemede.
  • St. Rose of Lima stands alone in Haddon Heights.
  • St. Agnes and St. Jude, both of Blackwood, are merging.
  • St. Mary of Williamstown and St. John Neumann of Sicklerville, are merging."
  • Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Berlin, joins with St. Edward of Pine Hill and Mater Ecclesiae of Berlin.
  • Standing alone are Holy Family of Sewell, St. Charles Borromeo of Sicklerville and Sts. Peter and Paul of Washington Township.
  • A three-way merger will join Holy Name of Jesus in Mullica Hill, with St. Joseph of Woodstown and St. Ann of Elmer.

In Gloucester County, these mergers will occur:

  • Our Lady of Lourdes, Glassboro, with Our Lady Queen of Peace in Pitman.
  • St. Margaret of Woodbury Heights with St. John Vianney of Deptford.
  • St. Patrick of Woodbury, with St. Matthew of National Park and Most Holy Redeemer of Westville Grove.
  • Merging with a priest team are St. Catherine of Siena, Clayton, and Nativity of Franklinville and St. Bridget of Glassboro.
  • Incarnation in Mantua will stand alone.
  • At the Jersey Shore, three churches will merge in Ocean City - St. Augustine, St. Frances Cabrini and Our Lady of Good Counsel.
  • St. Ann of Wildwood merging with Assumption of Marmora.
  • Maris Stella of Avalon merging with St. Paul of Stone Harbor.
  • Standing alone will be: Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cape May, St. Joseph of Sea Isle City and Our Lady of the Angels in Cape May Court House. Also at the Shore, St. Nicholas of Tolentine will stand alone in Atlantic City. Across the country, and especially the Northeast, bishops facing similar problems are cutting parishes.

Between 1995 and 2007, the church reported a loss of nearly 700 parishes nationwide, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. More cuts are on the way. Within the next two decades, the number of active diocesan priests in the United States is expected to drop in half to 11,500.

In six South Jersey counties, 124 parishes serve an estimated 450,000 Catholics, or about 33 percent of the population. However, just a quarter of Catholics in the diocese attend Mass regularly, officials say.

The population has shifted, too. In some areas where there are many churches clustered tightly together, the population is expected to decline. In other places, such as Gloucester County and parts of Atlantic County, the population is expected to grow as development of former farmland continues.

Most pressing is the impending priest shortage. The diocese expects it will have fewer than 85 active priests by 2015, a 50 percent decline.

Planning committees weighed options such as merging parishes into a new parish and clustering two or more parishes so they can share a priest. Others may be led by a "director of parish life" instead of a priest, and some parishes may be grouped together under a team of priests.

Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of Future Church, said her organization has been warning about the impending priest shortage and parish cutbacks for two decades.

If laity don't get involved now in shaping the future of the church, she said, "I don't know where the voice of the Catholic laity will come from."

"We've tried to get people to be proactive, but most people are just in denial," Schenk said in an interview earlier this week. "They don't want to believe their parish is going to close. When they see it's real, then it's suddenly a crisis . . . This is a situation that the Camden Diocese is going to face (today) but they're going to be facing it again in five years. All you have to do is look at the 50 percent loss in the number of priests."

Shrinking the number of parishes to fit the number of priests will lead to a loss of Catholics, Schenk believes.

"Most Catholics do not think worshiping in a mega parish with 10,000 other people is a way they appreciate Catholic community," Schenk said." To break up vital communities which have spiritually supported each other for many years is a big mistake."

While the diocese has been careful to distinguish between a parish "closing" and a parish "merging," some affected parishioners still feel the pain.

Nick Matteo, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Berlin, said there will be a lot of anxiety among those who will be displaced from their home parishes.

"A church and its pastor are very personal to many people," Matteo wrote in an e-mail sent this week. "Many of these parishioners have only known one parish in their lifetime. Some of us have looked long and hard to find the right fit for our families."

Parishes that absorb other congregations should "help relieve their anxiety" by welcoming them into their new parish, Matteo said.

Amy Weirauch, a member of Queen of Heaven Parish in Cherry Hill, said the situation was awful.

"I'm still praying for a miracle," she said before Thursday's announcement.

Reach Kim Mulford at (856) 251-3342 or kmulford@courierpostonline.com