New York Catholic churches closing after decades of service

© Mike Segar
Parishioners in New York are losing their churches as the Catholic Archdiocese carries out an aggressive consolidation plan. The cuts are driven by declining membership, fiscal insolvency of churches, and fewer priests, according to church officials.

While there are 2.8 million Catholics in New York, churches are being closed because attendance has fallen from 25 percent to 12 percent, with only 346,000 parishioners regularly attending Sunday Mass, according to the Archdiocese.

With attendance numbers in decline, church leaders have to grapple with how to staff and maintain networks of churches designed decades ago for larger congregations.

The New York Archdiocese first announced its consolidation plan in November of last year in an attempt to deal with escalating costs ranging from utility bills to the upkeep of church buildings, some of which are over 150 years old. It said it spends $30 to $40 million a year to subsidize churches that cannot pay their debts.

“Any kind of change is always difficult. We understand that it’s difficult especially for people in their parishes who love their churches, who love the way things are, who don’t want to see any change. And we understand that,” Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the New York Archdiocese, told the New York Times in 2014.

“But we also realize that if that church is going to effectively meet the needs of the people, it has to meet the needs of the people as they exist today.”

Adding to the contraction is the dwindling number of priests. The Archdiocese has watched as the numbers of its priests dropped by 33 percent, from 58,000 in 1981 to just over 38,000 in 2014, according to the National Catholic Review.

Under the plan, 112 parishes in New York will be merged to create 55 new parishes that share administrative costs. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for services, meaning 112 out of 368 churches will be shuttered by August.

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Parishioners at St. Joseph Church on the Lower East Side attended their last service on Sunday. The church has been in service for 90 years. One parishioner, Jimmy Lizzio, 99, has been coming since he was 10 years old.

“I’m the oldest parishioner alive,” Lizzio told the New York Daily News. “How do I feel? Sad. Very sad. I’ve been coming here all my life, every Sunday. I don’t [know] where I’ll be going now.”

“I can’t walk far,” he added. “This may be the last time I go to church.”

Lizzio’s neighborhood was originally full of Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, but it has since been gentrified, taken over by businesses and condos for the wealthy. The elderly on the Lower East Side make up the last vestiges of the original immigrant populations.

Absent from the reasons cited for the cuts are the huge payouts the Catholic Church has had to make to settle hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases in America. Since 1950, the church has paid out more than $2.6 billion, according to a study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2009. Facing a flood of claims, five US dioceses sought bankruptcy protection.

The parish mergers will not affect Catholic schools, which have been separated from the parishes over the last several years and are managed by regional boards.

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Some Manhattan Catholics suspect that their historic city churches – built on valuable real estate – are only on the chopping block to improve the Archdiocese’s finances.

“The financial condition of the Archdiocese somehow may be corrupting decisions to make decisions to sell churches,” Edward Hawkings told Voice of America. He is a parishioner who attends The Church of the Holy Innocents, the only church in Manhattan offering a high Latin Mass every day of the week.

Zwilling denied the claim and said the sale of a church is a last resort. When that happens, he said the proceeds are used to help the parishioners.