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Valley News Dispatch

Pittsburgh Diocese plan makes 57 parishes out of 188

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, April 28, 2018, 4:45 p.m.
Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik announces updated plans for a parish merger process and priest reassignments during a news conference on Saturday, April 28, 2018, at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik announces updated plans for a parish merger process and priest reassignments during a news conference on Saturday, April 28, 2018, at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.
The Rev. Kenneth Kezmarsky shakes hands with parishioners after Mass on Saturday, April 28, 2018, outside St. Alphonsus Church in Springdale following the Pittsburgh Diocese's announcement of a parish merger process and priest reassignments.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Kenneth Kezmarsky shakes hands with parishioners after Mass on Saturday, April 28, 2018, outside St. Alphonsus Church in Springdale following the Pittsburgh Diocese's announcement of a parish merger process and priest reassignments.
The Rev. Aaron J. Kriss hosts the Saturday Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in Natrona Heights.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Aaron J. Kriss hosts the Saturday Mass at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish on Saturday, April 28, 2018, in Natrona Heights.

About 80 percent of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh's 200 priests will be assigned to different churches starting in October, part of the six-county diocese's biggest reorganization in nearly three decades.

Bishop David Zubik announced the diocesan-wide clergy reassignments Saturday as he unveiled the next phase of a plan to merge 188 individual parishes into 57 final multi-church groupings — a change from 48 groupings proposed last year.

Each grouping will have two to five years to submit their merger plan to the bishop, some of which eventually will involve church building closures.

No church closures have been determined yet, and Zubik gave no estimate on how many of the diocese's roughly 225 church buildings may have to close. More than half of the parishes have been losing money for years.

The bishop acknowledged the priest transfers are "going to cause some pain with people" and urged them to be open to new priests.

"They may have some priests that they have really come to appreciate," Zubik said. "Any time you're going to have that kind of separation of a relationship that's built them up, there's going to be a certain sense of loss there. But there's going to be sense again with the parishes that are receiving them as well, too."

Under the newly announced plan, every priest has received a new assignment as part of the 57 parish groupings, with most in groupings that do not include their current parish, Zubik said.

The Rev. Ken Kezmarsky told parishioners at St. Alphonsus in Springdale that he is being reassigned in October. He's been at the church about seven years.

Helen Prasnikar, who has attended the parish for more than 60 years, acknowledged the change, but she would like to know more sooner.

"I would just like to know where the new church will be. I hope it's close and that I can get to it," she said.

The Rev. Larry Adams broke the news to parishioners at St. Ursula in Pittsburgh's North Hills during the Saturday evening Mass.

"There aren't any changes to the parish and to the church right now," he reassured parishioners. "We are not closing. We are not going to start the process for a year or more."

In six months, Adams will be moving from St. Ursula, which serves the suburbs of Hampton and Shaler, to a new parish grouping encompassing communities in Braddock, Rankin, Forrest Hills and Swissvale.

"Every assignment the bishop's given me, I've come to love the place and love the people," Adams said.

Bob Koch, 75, of Shaler lamented that Adams is leaving, but he's not too worried about the rest of the transition. He was pleased that under the final groupings, St. Ursula is grouped with St. Mary of Assumption only, rather than five other parishes.

"I just hate to lose him," Koch said, gesturing to Father Larry. "I think he's done a good job here."

No one was surprised at Holy Family in East Deer.

There, the Rev. Thomas Gillespie, who also is assigned to Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum, will be reassigned to Washington County in October.

"We've been expecting this," parishioner Joe Novaset said.

Most parishes will complete the merger process within three years, Zubik said.

The most cash-strapped ones must do so within two years, by the end of 2020, while some groupings will have until 2023.

"I truly believe that change can bring new life and joy," Zubik said Saturday during a news conference at St. Paul Seminary in Crafton. "I realize that such transformation is rarely easy, especially in the heartfelt matters of faith and parish life. I know that this change will require us — the faithful, the clergy and myself — to let go of some things that are precious and familiar. I also am convinced that our clergy and faithful have what it takes to form deep and lasting relationships within their groupings and to create welcoming communities."

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. A team of clergy is assigned to each grouping to head up the planning.

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 took geography into heavy consideration and avoided grouping parishes in either extreme financial stress or great affluence.

Since 2000, Mass attendance has plummeted by more than 40 percent and sacramental participation has dropped by 50 percent, the diocese said. The diocese serves about 630,000 Catholics in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington counties.

The diocese estimates that its roughly 200 priests will dwindle to 112 by 2025.

Priests learned of their new assignments Thursday afternoon. They read the letters the bishop gave them to parishioners during evening Mass on Saturday and planned to do so again Sunday.

New Mass schedules will be announced in August and take effect with the clergy reassignments Oct. 15.

The five-year planning initiative dubbed "On Mission for the Church Alive!" has included input from more than 30,000 parishioners at 329 parish consultation meetings.

"I know for a fact that even up until the last couple of weeks, some of these things were still being prayed on and considered," Adams said. "I want to make sure that everyone knows what the game plan is so that there are no surprises, and I am hoping that the community will stay intact and not lose hope. Because there is a lot to be hopeful about in this parish."

The Rev. Aaron Kriss said he and the Rev. John Lendvai will remain at Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Harrison but, as the process continues, there will be some changes in Mass schedules.

Kriss asked "all people of God all over the diocese to do whatever they can" to move ahead.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha. Staff writer Chuck Biedka contributed to this report.

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