(Detroit Free Press) For some Catholics, there was clarity at this weekend's masses. For others, there was confusion about the future of their churches, even as some pastors disclosed details of Archbishop Allen Vigneron's plan to restructure hundreds of parishes in the wake of priest shortages and financial problems.
At St. Leo's in Detroit, parishioners heard they got a reprieve from closure, and will stay open as part of a merged parish with nearby St. Cecilia -- with both sites offering masses.
At St. Vincent de Ferrer in Madison Heights, parishioners heard they will be part of a merger that will condense four south Oakland County parishes into one by 2015, but it's unclear where parishioners will worship. One of St. Vincent's merger partners is St. Dennis in Royal Oak, where parishioners were told nothing Sunday because a visiting priest presided at mass.
At Our Lady of Fatima, the Rev. Paul Chateau explained how his Oak Park parish is to merge with St. James of Ferndale by mid-2013. After that, there could be a merger with Our Lady of LaSalette in Berkley. Along the way, the churches need to develop contingency plans to close and sell buildings in case there's no replacement available for a pastor, or the churches operate in the red financially.
"I don't know how exactly this is going to play out. They didn't give me a script," Chateau told about 170 parishioners at Saturday mass at Our Lady of Fatima. "We are a loving, prayerful and welcoming community. I propose to try and carry on."
Pastors found out midweek about Vigneron's decisions regarding their parish's fate in a massive restructuring of 270 parishes across the six-county archdiocese. The archdiocese says some closings and mergers are needed because of the severe priest shortage, population shifts away from Detroit and inner-ring suburbs and financial necessity.
Vigneron is to hold a news conference at 4 p.m. today to discuss his decisions. Afterward, the archdiocese said it will release a comprehensive list of how each parish is affected on its website at www.aodonline.org .
Pastors were instructed to share the news with parishioners at weekend masses. Vigneron changed some recommendations for closures and mergers made to him by the Archdiocesan Pastoral Commission in November. The archdiocese has mailed out letters explaining Vigneron's decisions to 270,000 Catholic households, although few people appeared to have received them before weekend masses.
"It's not total gloom and doom," Ed Shea, the pastoral administrator at St. Peter Claver on Detroit's west side, told congregants Sunday. Initially, the recommendation called for St. Peter Claver to submit plans by July on how it may merge and its buildings be sold to pay off debt if the current pastor leaves for any reason.
But Shea told parishioners that the Rev. James O'Reilly, a Jesuit priest who is 85, asked to be kept on.
"He could have chosen a cushy retirement, but he chose to stay here," said Shea, as parishioners applauded O'Reilly, who was sitting on the altar.
Shea said the parish, which resulted from a previous merger between Precious Blood and St. Francis de Sales, has financial issues to work on. The parish, he said, saves $1,000 a week by not using its main sanctuary at the old Precious Blood church and instead using a smaller chapel during the winter at the old St. Francis site, which is now the home of all-boys Loyola Catholic High School. The parish has about 200 families and was able to raise $100,000 last year to replace a church roof.
Anita Starks, 47, of Detroit, a longtime parishioner, reacted with relief: "It's better than I thought, but still kind of up in the air. There's still that worry."
At St. Luke's church, in Detroit on the Dearborn border, the recommendation made in November called for the parish to close and merge with St. Mary's of Redford in Detroit.
St. Luke parishioners leaving mass Sunday told the Free Press the church is merging with St. Mary's of Redford, but details were unclear. The pastor, the Rev. Tyrone Robinson, would not discuss Vigneron's decision with the news media and asked a reporter and photographer to leave the church.
Ty Mopkins, 40, of Detroit said he was told during the service that worship would still be held at St. Luke's.
"I feel good about it. We aren't closing," said Dorothy Revell, 70, of Detroit, who has attended St. Luke's for more than 20 years.
It seemed that many of the new arrangements will combine two or three parishes into one. But even if two parishes merge, in some cases both worship sites may stay open -- at least for a while. That will depend on whether there's a priest available to pastor the parish and whether it is financially stable.
A view to the future
Where Vigneron holds his news conference today could give many Catholics a glimpse of how mergers could work.
Vigneron is to speak at Transfiguration/Our Lady Help of Christians, one of three churches in Detroit and Hamtramck in a merged parish created in December and called Blessed John Paul II. One priest, the Rev. Andrew Wesley, is the pastor. All three churches operate under their previous names: St. Ladislaus in Hamtramck, St. Louis the King in Detroit and Transfiguration/Our Lady Help of Christians in Detroit.
Wesley gets help from other priests in covering masses at the three worship sites, but now he deals with one parish council and one set of financial books, instead of three, for example.
Transfiguration/Our Lady Help of Christians was formed in 2006 when Our Lady Help of Christians was closed and its building sold to a Muslim group to become a mosque.
"Parishioners from all the parishes came together last week to make pierogis, and we're working together to build one solid parish," said Monica Archibald, who has been coming to Transfiguration, where her dad attended grade school, for about 12 years. She drives from Howell each Sunday to pick up her dad, Tom Matusz, in Warren to go to mass at the Transfiguration/Our Lady Help of Christians site.
"It's a very emotional and hard process for these people to go through," Archibald said. Even if the churches are staying open, people are attached to the parishes where they grew up, from baptism to marriage and funerals, and which are now closing.
She lauds Wesley for his dedication to the transition. "He's a model to be followed by other priests," she said.
At other parishes over the weekend:
• In Hamtramck, Catholics who attended mass at St. Florian, the enclave's landmark church, heard nothing about its future. In November, there was a recommendation that the parish might close if the current order of Polish priests who staff the parish cannot commit to continuing and for the need to do something about its $1.85-million debt.
• In Dearborn Heights, the Rev. Edwin Balazy told St. John the Baptist parishioners that the church could merge with nearby St. Albert the Great because of a priest shortage. Once there were 600 families, and now there are about 250 families as members. Parishioner Joan Buzo of Dearborn Heights has attended the church for 60 years, where her three children were baptized and two married. "We knew it was coming eventually," Buzo said.
• In Fraser, the Rev. Ronald Babich told Our Lady Queen of All Saints mass-goers that the parish will collaborate with two Roseville parishes, Sacred Heart and St. Athanasius. Babich, pastor at the Fraser church since 1994, said his congregation was asked to start working now with the two other parishes to look for ways to combine efforts, such as youth programs. The Fraser church has about 850 families. "It will be a rough process, but it's a good process," he told the Free Press after services.
• In Royal Oak, the Rev. Bob Malloy, a Capuchin priest, was filling in for the pastor at St. Dennis. He didn't announce any plans to the congregation because he was not asked to, Malloy said. St. Dennis, on 12 Mile near I-75, has masses in English, Vietnamese and Filipino languages. But at nearby St. Vincent Ferrer in Madison Heights, parishioners were told that roughly around 2015, St. Vincent, St. Dennis and the Hazel Park parishes of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Justin will be merged into one parish.
"We're not quite sure what that means, and we don't know which buildings will stay open," said Linda Jannuzzi Karolski at St. Vincent, where the Rev. John Esper is pastor. "I think everybody was shocked. And the pastor just said pray for me, because it's going to be a lot of work for the pastor."