Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh proposes to reshape parishes, close churches

Washington and Greene counties could lose 18 churches

May 19, 2017
Bishop David A. Zubik speaks Friday at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh about reorganizing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. - Scott Beveridge/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

PITTSBURGH – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is proposing sweeping reductions in the number of parishes, churches and priests over several years in a six-county region that includes Washington and Greene counties.

Bishop David A. Zubik, while meeting with members of the media Friday, said the diocese’s 188 parishes have been divided into 49 groups that have been assigned to make recommendations for the cutbacks as the church faces a critical shortage of priests and a large reduction in the number of people who attend Mass.

“Our priests are stretched too thinly,” Zubik said during the breakfast meeting at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh’s East Carnegie neighborhood.

“We need to redesign and mobilize our parishes,” he said.

The proposal indicates the diocese may close 18 of the 34 Roman Catholic churches in Washington and Greene counties and reduce the number of priests in those areas from 23 to 11 by 2025.

The On Mission Commission, which is a group of more than 80 priests, parishioners and diocesan staff members, will makes its recommendations on the changes to Zubik by the end of the year. He said he will make his final decision on the plan next spring.

“It’s going to be a tough struggle for some folks,” he said.

The protests will come from those who want to keep their churches open and will threaten to leave the faith if they close, Zubik said.

“We have to do something to convince them that a church is not a building,” he said.

The Roman Catholic population in the diocese declined from 753,147 in 2000 to 632,138 two years ago. A little more than 149,000 people attended Mass in 2015, a drop of nearly 100,000 from the turn of the century.

Zubik said most of the current priests will be in retirement in 10 years. Projections show the number of priests in the diocese will drop from 209 this month to 112 in 2025.

The Immaculate Conception and St. Hilary parishes in Washington have been grouped with St. Ann in Bulger, St. Michael in Avella and Our Lady of Lourdes in Burgettstown. Together the parishes have six churches, a number that likely will be reduced to three when the cuts are made.

Diocesan records indicate one church likely will be closed in the Mon Valley parishes of St. Damien of Molokai in Monongahela, Mary Mother of the Church in Charleroi and Our Lady of the Valley in Donora.

St. Ann Parish in Waynesburg has been grouped with St. Hugh in Carmichaels, St. Ignatius of Antioch in Bobtown, Our Lady of Consolation in Nemacolin and St. Katharine Drexel, which has churches in California, Fredericktown, Roscoe, Marianna and Bentleyville.

The two churches in the parish grouping of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Meadow Lands and St. Patrick in Canonsburg are not slated to close. However, those churches are expected to lose one of three priests.

The group that includes St. Mary in Cecil Township, Holy Rosary in Muse and Holy Child and St. Barbara in Bridgeville likely will be reduced from four churches to two.

Meanwhile, the group including St. Alphonsus in McDonald, St. Columbkille in Imperial, Holy Trinity in Robinson Township and St. Patrick in North Fayette Township probably will be see two church closings.

The diocese also will need to reorganize its staff to reflect the modern needs of the church and attract millennials to the pews, Zubik said.

“We currently pay for redundant staff positions, rather than hiring new specialists we need for ministry today,” he said.

For example, by combining five parishes into one, the new parish might no longer need five directors of religious education and five music directors. Zubik said the number of music directors could be reduced to two, with one of them specializing in music that appeals to younger people. Meanwhile, empty offices might be used for food banks and to collect clothing for the poor.

The changes will be implemented in three phases, with the larger and more complex parish shifts occurring closer to 2025.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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