BELLEVILLE • Though church leaders have been discussing consolidation for years, Roman Catholic leaders in Southern Illinois expect as many as 20 parishes to close in 2012.
"As we give thanks for the past we must plan for the future, taking into account the realities of the present," Bishop Edward Braxton, leader of the Diocese of Belleville, recently wrote in a letter to parishioners in the diocese, which spans 28 counties.
Though there have been rumblings about financial mismanagement, the diocese said that the recent $6.3 million payout to a priest sex-abuse victim did not motivate the consolidation plan. Officials said the topic has been discussed for 15 to 20 years.
There are 70,000 active Catholics in the diocese who attend 117 parishes, Braxton said in the letter. Some churches are vibrant, but he said others are small, close together and face "very serious financial challenges."
Braxton said he hasn't decided which parishes will close. The restructuring plan is still under review and he's asking each parish and school to come up with better ways to work together.
"We must be attentive to the desires of individual communities while making hard decisions for the long-term good of the whole diocese," he said.
The diocese includes urban areas, sprawling suburbs and farm communities originally developed by immigrants.
In tiny Radom, Ill., home to about 400 people, St. Michael Church towers into the sky. News of expected closures isn't sitting well with parishioners such as Luke Tomaszewski, 65, a retired factory worker. His grandfather donated stone for St. Michael's, which Tomaszewski said he has attended his entire life. He said counting on locals to come up with consolidation suggestions "is going to go over like a lead brick."
The Rev. John Myler, a spokesman for the diocese, agreed there are difficult changes ahead. "If that means that the people of two parishes must come together as one so that they can have a priest and have the sacraments, then that is where the road is leading them," he said.
As in many other areas of the country, he said, population shifts can't be ignored. For instance, East St. Louis had 14 parishes in 1960; today it has one. Some communities have grown and others have shrunk. The rise in corporate farming has changed the rural landscape. Also in 1960, Myler said, the diocese had 150 active priests. Today it has 69, eight of whom are over 70.
Since Braxton arrived at the diocese in 2005, he has helped keep many parishes open by recruiting priests from outside the country, many from Africa. Though there are an additional 22 international priests, their commitments are not expected to be long-term.
"There is no end to this," said the Rev. Roger Karban, of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, of consolidation. "We just don't have any new priests."
Across the state in Mount Carmel, Ill., the Rev. William Rowe said closing parishes "becomes rather sticky" because "every little community has its own special spirit."
"Personally I think we should keep those little communities functioning," he said. "In the early church, the solution was to expand ministry to keep those communities, rather than close them."
But Braxton said in his letter that many people in the diocese said the process should have started sooner. He expects the changes to be made in 2012.