An interesting thought crossed my mind the other day when I heard that my bishop was talking about closing older parishes. Could new churches be built in leased facilities and/or be mobile like a large RV? Doesn’t it kind of fit with our modern concept of mobility?
Years ago, our forefathers thought that brick and stone represented a certain permanence. Wasn’t this the “house of God” and should it not be reflected as such? Without doubt, Church leaders could not have envisioned neighborhoods changing as they have today. Whle demographic shifts have brought about mobility, cultural shifts have brought about an entire class of Catholics where, for many, attendance at Christmas and Easter Masses has become the norm. Given this, once proud neighborhood parishes have devolved into fractions of what they once were. From the perspective of the balance sheet, these former assets have become liabilities. In the end, however, I guess it comes down to the value we place on local parishes.
Apparently the thinking today is such that the value of a local parish church is based upon the current wealth of parishioners and, of course, their numbers. Once parish revenue falls below what businesses consider the “breakeven point,” their value diminishes quickly. At the point where the incoming collections can no longer cover the expenses of the church, flags are raised and a diocesan cost study is triggered. So the church, brick and stone and all its history is evaluated against a “financial model” that says, “we cannot continue to support this church.” This is sort of like a company evaluating its products and when Product A no longer sells at a point where it covers its fixed and variable costs, it is considered a liability and may be discontinued or that division sold.
It is kind of sad as these older churches could end up being a part of the city that may come back but can we wait financially for this to happen? Probably not. I like these old churches as they reflected a lot of history and their marble and stone is almost irreplaceable at today’s cost. This past week, my wife’s attention was picqued as we drove past one parish church in a local suburb. “Look, those are the windows from the old St. Thomas Church.” Well, that opens up another option. Should we dismantle the old churches, using their parts to replace or renovate existing “semi-old” churches, but then we are back into the “brick and mortar” business all over again.
I guess if we consider the old churches as places of worship we will do all we can to keep them alive and forget the cost involved. Spiritual value would overrule material value. However, if dollars rule our decisions, then the wrecking ball should be ordered as they have lost their material value.
On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, old St. Mary’s could be placed on wheels in order that it might follow the ever-changing population trends?
DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati’s Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.