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Urban parishes in Diocese of Pittsburgh struggle to make ends meet

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, 11:00 p.m.
Former St. Anthony parishioners gather in prayer outside of St. Anthony church, led in prayer by former parishioner Joseph Ravasio
Former St. Anthony parishioners gather in prayer outside of St. Anthony church, led in prayer by former parishioner Joseph Ravasio
The Rev. John D. Harvey, a Capuchin brother, holds a T-shirt that reads, 'The Bearded Brothers: The Original Lawrenceville Hipsters,' at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The Rev. John D. Harvey, a Capuchin brother, holds a T-shirt that reads, 'The Bearded Brothers: The Original Lawrenceville Hipsters,' at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015.
St. Anthony church in Monongahela, PA, was deconsecrated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh on April 27, 2014. Nearly all parishioners bitterly opposed the closure and many have remained a cohesive faith family. Nearly 100 former St. Anthony parishioners gathered at the Ripepi Winery to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 15, 2015.
St. Anthony church in Monongahela, PA, was deconsecrated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh on April 27, 2014. Nearly all parishioners bitterly opposed the closure and many have remained a cohesive faith family. Nearly 100 former St. Anthony parishioners gathered at the Ripepi Winery to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 15, 2015.
Former St. Anthony parishioners Francine Mizwa, Marion Sance, Ralph Guzzo and Christian Guzzo look over desserts at the Christmas party for former St. Anthony parishioners
Former St. Anthony parishioners Francine Mizwa, Marion Sance, Ralph Guzzo and Christian Guzzo look over desserts at the Christmas party for former St. Anthony parishioners
Former St. Anthony parishioners Glenda Podrosky and Jean Ripepi share memories at the 2015 St. Anthony Christmas party
Former St. Anthony parishioners Glenda Podrosky and Jean Ripepi share memories at the 2015 St. Anthony Christmas party
Former St. Anthony parishioners gather near the statue of St. Anthony outside of the church bearing his name. Nolan Sion, John Podroskey, Christian Guzzo, Barb Falappi, Jean Ripepi, Wanda Magone
Former St. Anthony parishioners gather near the statue of St. Anthony outside of the church bearing his name. Nolan Sion, John Podroskey, Christian Guzzo, Barb Falappi, Jean Ripepi, Wanda Magone
Bishop David A. Zubik was scheduled to have surgery at UPMC Mercy to repair damaged discs in his back on Monday, June 26, 2017.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Bishop David A. Zubik was scheduled to have surgery at UPMC Mercy to repair damaged discs in his back on Monday, June 26, 2017.

Almost half of 200 parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh are losing money, even as some churches in suburban and gentrified urban areas grow so rapidly that they struggle to accommodate members amid a shortage of priests.

Old ethnic churches and cash-strapped parishes in economically depressed areas such as the Monongahela Valley's once-thriving mill towns are in the most dire financial straits.

“We've got to take a look at, realistically, what has to happen in those areas,” Bishop David Zubik told the Tribune-Review. “There's a lot of studying to be done.”

Meanwhile, in places such as Upper St. Clair and Cranberry, Catholic parishes are booming.

St. Kilian's in Cranberry grew by 400 percent in the past decade to about 11,000 members. The 10,000-member St. Bernard Parish in Mt. Lebanon has such a strong weekly attendance that it schedules optional Sunday Mass in the church basement.

Western Pennsylvania's evolving landscape of Catholic churches and the shifting makeup of their memberships have diocesan officials re-examining how to serve communities.

The Pittsburgh diocese is looking at how to increase participation in the church and reorganize its infrastructure. That could mean closures, mergers, interfaith cooperation and more rotating priests serving multiple parishes.

“This is all about growing the church's ministry to people,” Zubik said. “We're going to have to take into account declining resources, too.”

The diocese's broader strategy won't take its formal shape until its about 633,000 parishioners across six counties pitch ideas.

Counting closures

The Pittsburgh diocese last embarked on a major reorganization in 1989. It shrunk from 310 parishes using 333 buildings to 218 parishes using 288 buildings by 1998, said John Flaherty, the diocese's secretary for parish life.

Separately, through case-by-case evaluations, the diocese has closed 48 church buildings and established 10 parishes through mergers.

Most recently, the Vatican upheld Zubik's decision to close St. Anthony's, a Monongahela church that was deconsecrated in April 2014.

“Nearly all parishioners bitterly opposed the closure, and many have remained a cohesive faith family,” said Laura Magone, spokeswoman for the group that lodged the appeal. Zubik said he made the call after two years of input from more than 400 people.

He now is weighing whether to close St. John Vianney in Pittsburgh's Allentown neighborhood.

The diocese is exploring mergers for five parishes: St. Catherine of Siena and St. Pamphilus in Beechview, and Our Lady of Loreto, St. Pius X and Resurrection in Brookline.

The 78 parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg — with 142,000 members across four counties — appear to be in better fiscal shape.

“I don't think anybody's in dire straits,” said Greensburg diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt.

That stability follows two reorganizations in the past seven years, resulting in 16 parish closures and mergers involving eight.

Flaherty said three metrics carry weight in determining closures: financial constraints, availability of clergy and population changes.

Shifting demographics

Old ethnic churches that peaked at the turn of the 20th century might be on their way out, but church leaders are reaching out to emerging immigrant populations such as Hispanics, who are relocating to Western Pennsylvania at double the national rate .

More Pittsburgh diocese clergy and lay ministers are getting training in Spanish and understanding of Hispanic culture and rituals. It's part of the curriculum at St. Paul's Seminary in Crafton.

“We have a blossoming Latino community in Meadowlands and also Brookline, Beechview, Butler, South Oakland,” said Zubik. “We want to be prepared to appreciate their customs and their language.”

The church also wants to appeal to young adults, particularly in neighborhoods that draw professionals and budding families.

“We're looking for ways to get young people involved and how we can provide better ministry as the needs are emerging,” Zubik said.

Like other faith leaders, diocesan officials have the challenge of attracting and retaining churchgoers at a time when 23 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, the latest Pew Research Center data show. Millennials are among the least religious. Unlike their baby boomer and Generation Y parents who flocked to suburbs, those 18- to 34-year-olds tend to want to live in walkable, urban areas.

Our Lady of Angels in Lawrenceville — a trendy, artsy neighborhood experiencing a real estate rebound — pounced on the opportunity to promote itself during the summer's Open Streets PGH street activities.

Outside its entrance at 37th and Butler streets, the church put up a display booth, offering passers-by tours and a life-size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis for taking selfies. Its biggest marketing success: T-shirts with a photo of three long-bearded Capuchin clergymen, whose Pittsburgh roots date to 1873, and the phrase, “The Bearded Brothers — The Original Lawrenceville ‘Hipsters.' ”

The shirts were an instant hit. They ordered three more batches and sold nearly 250.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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