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Reorganization threatens to shutter New Orleans parish

By Rick Jervis, USA Today, 5/7/08

NEW ORLEANS — The faithful of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church are not leaving quietly.

Told last month that their 121-year-old church may close as part of a massive post-Katrina reorganization of Catholic churches, Good Counsel parishioners are writing letters, filing appeals and threatening lawsuits.

"Since Katrina, our government has failed us, our levees have failed us, and now our bishop is failing us," said Cheron Brylski, 49, a Good Counsel parishioner leading the fight to keep the church open. "It's really disturbing and heartbreaking for us."

The Archdiocese of New Orleans recently announced the closure or merging of 33 of what once were 142 parishes across the greater New Orleans region. The closures are part of a national trend that has seen nearly 700 parishes shutter across the USA during the past decade. The closings have sparked a national resistance effort.

The parish closings in this city have taken on a greater significance for those who believe the churches are crucial to the city's recovery.

"Churches have been important in the recovery effort," Brylski said. "Katrina has changed people's attitude as to what's important."

'Painful decisions'

In New Orleans, the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed 25 churches and dispersed 106,000 Catholics from the area, said Sarah Comiskey, an archdiocese spokeswoman.

The soaring Gothic-style Good Counsel church received little damage from Katrina. Two months after the floods, while much of the rest of the city sat in ruins, the church reopened its doors and held services for National Guardsmen and other rescue workers in the area, Brylski said.

Since Katrina, the church has gained 150 families, as parishioners from wrecked neighborhoods moved into the area. The parish, established in 1887, has a mix of parishioners that include blacks, whites, Hispanics, Vietnamese and others, Brylski said.

The neighborhood around Good Counsel has also rebounded strongly since Katrina: New businesses are moving in, including a Borders bookstore, currently under construction, said Barbara Fortier, a member of Good Counsel's parish council.

The post-storm reorganization calls for the Good Counsel parish to merge with two other nearby churches and for parishioners to attend Mass at the bigger St. Stephen's church, Comiskey said. The closures are set for the end of the year.

"These are painful decisions," Comiskey said. "The main focus is to bring all of us forward together as one Catholic church."

The archdiocese absorbed $120 million in uninsured damages from the storm, she said. The damage, coupled with a pre-existing shortage of priests, forced church leaders to reconfigure parishes, Comiskey said.

Some parishioners took the news of the closures with sadness. Others, such as those at Good Counsel, are preparing for a fight.

'Vital part of community'

Fighting church closures is a prickly process, said Peter Borre, the founder of the Council of Parishes, a national grass-roots group based in Boston that is fighting church closures across the country.

Parishioners can appeal the decision, taking a case all the way to the Vatican's Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority of the Catholic Church, he said. But cases there are filed and heard in Latin, creating challenges, he said. The coalition currently has nine cases waiting to be heard before the Apostolic Signatura, Borre said.

Good Counsel parishioners mailed more than 300 letters to the archdiocese opposing the closure and have started the appeals process through the Vatican. They also joined the Council of Parishes, which boasts 32 parishioner groups from Boston, New York, Camden, N.J. and Toledo, Ohio, Borre said.

"These parishes are more than just spiritual venues," Borre said. "The social service programs run out of these parishes are a vital part of the community. You close down these parishes, and you close down not just the Catholic liturgy but the social outreach programs as well. The neighborhood is impacted by it."

Disappearing parishes

At least 40 dioceses across the country are in the process of closing about 1,000 parishes, Borre said. "In a generation or two, Catholic America will not be as we know it today," he said.

Although the number of Catholics in the USA continue to rise at a rate of about 1% to 2% a year, parishes have steadily closed since their peak in the mid-1990s, said Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The number of Catholic parishes have shrunk from 19,331 in 1995 to 18,634 last year, according to the center.

One of the most effective weapons employed by the coalition to oppose church closures is what Borre calls "Deep Chalice" — a network of informants within dioceses named after the federal source in the Watergate scandal. The informants pass along financial and other internal information to coalition officials, who use it in appeals or leak it to news media outlets, he said.

Good Counsel parishioners hope that their appeal will be granted.

"If this church was in a neighborhood that had 8 to 10 feet of water and the area was devastated, that's something I could understand," Brylski said. "But that's just not the case. We're going to do everything we possibly can to keep our church open."