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Zubik details Catholic church consolidation plan in Western Pa.

| Friday, May 19, 2017, 6:30 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
David A. Zubik, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Emily Harger | Tribune-Review
Deacons of the Diocese of Pittsburgh line up for the procession into St. Paul's Cathedral at the Ordination of Priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in Oakland on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Michael Richard Ackerman, Michael Patrick Conway, Kenneth William Marlovits, and Thomas George Schluep Jr. were ordinated into the Diocese of Pittsburgh Saturday morning.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Light shines through the stained glass at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church.
Deacons (from left) Eric J. Dinga of Ford City, Anthony J. Klimko of Uniontown and James B. Morley of Latrobe lay before Diocese of Greensburg Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt as they are ordained priests at the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg on Saturday, June 20, 2015.

Western Pennsylvania's landscape of Catholic churches is about to undergo its biggest downsizing in nearly three decades.

Starting in late 2018, parishes across the six-county Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh are set to consolidate into 49 proposed groupings, Bishop David Zubik announced Friday.

Under the plan, the diocese's most cash-strapped parishes would merge within one to two years, while other groupings could take five years to complete.

The proposed changes aim to bolster the vibrancy, effectiveness and financial strength of each parish by grouping clusters of existing parishes — many of which are struggling to make ends meet — into a single church community.

Once finalized, Zubik said he will redeploy clergy, money and other resources to best meet the needs of each newly created parish.

"We put far too much of the money given for God's use into maintaining stone, mortar and boilers," Zubik said during a breakfast with reporters at St. Paul Seminary in Crafton. "We currently pay for redundant staff positions, rather than hiring the new specialists we need for ministry today."

The mergers certainly will involve closing church buildings , but Zubik said he has not yet decided which churches are likely to shutter. Rather, the proposed parish groupings include recommendations for the total number of buildings and priests each grouping should share.

Zubik said Catholics should embrace the opportunity to join with neighboring church communities to make one another stronger.

"A parish is a territory, defined by boundaries, in which many people live," Zubik said. "It is not a church building."

Among proposed groupings detailed Friday:

• In Pittsburgh's East End, St. Maria Goretti will merge with St. Raphael and Sacred Heart in Shadyside, with three priests to oversee a weekly Mass attendance of about 2,400 people. Two of the five church buildings across the parishes would close.

• In the Upper Allegheny Valley, seven churches will downsize from eight to three campuses: St. Alphonsus in Springdale, Holy Family in Creighton, St. Joseph in Natrona, Holy Martyrs in Tarentum, Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Natrona Heights; Our Lady of Victory in Harwick; and St. Pio of Pietrelcina in Blawnox.

• Three Penn Hills churches — St. Bartholomew, St. Gerard Majella and St. Susanna — will combine with two Monroeville area churches, St. Bernadette and North American Martyrs.

The number of active Catholics has declined from 914,000 in 1980 to 632,000 in 2015, diocesan figures show.

Guidelines used in developing the models included: parishes would contain between 7,000 and 60,000 members, some with multiple churches; aim for no fewer than 1,000 people at Sunday Mass, preferably between 2,000 and 4,000; and do not exceed one priest for every 2,400 persons, except for specialized needs, such as language skills.

The diocese avoided grouping parishes in either extreme financial stress or great affluence.

The restructuring proposal is the result of a five-year planning initiative dubbed "On Mission for the Church Alive!" The proposed parish groupings factor in input from more than 27,000 parishioners at 329 parish consultation meetings last fall .

Zubik said he will begin rolling out the final decisions — including assigning each parish a priest and Mass schedule — in spring 2018.

Separately, the diocese's Department for Catholic School Administration is restructuring its schools .

The Diocese of Pittsburgh, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties, serves a 3,750-square-mile area made up of more than 630,000 Catholics, or one-third of the zone's total population. It last embarked on a major reorganization in 1989, and shrank from 310 parishes using 333 buildings to 218 parishes using 288 buildings by 1998, diocesan figures show.

View all 49 proposed parish groupings for 2018-2023 on the diocese's website .

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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