The date was January 10, 1989. Detroit’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Edmond Szoka ordered 31 inner-city parishes closed by June 30th and has given 25 additional parishes one year to boost membership and income or risk a similar fate. The move, the largest mass closing of parishes in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church, was prompted by the flight to the suburbs by large numbers of ethnic Catholics in recent decades and dwindling support for the parishes they left behind.
Roll the clock forward and the date is February 19, 2012. The Archdiocese of Detroit will officially announce the fate of the area’s Catholic churches tomorrow, but some parishioners are already finding out whether their churches will stay open. The Archdiocese comprises a total of 270 Catholic churches, with more than 59 Detroit parishes, down from 79 in the year 2000. According to the Detroit Free Press, about 35% of the city’s parishes are having serious financial difficulties. Several parishes in the city are behind in paying debts owed to the archdiocese, including $2.1 million owed by several parishes for the priest’s pension fund, $845,000 owed to cover the cost of pensions and health benefits for parish/school employees, and $4.6 million owed to the archdiocese’s bank for loans extended to the parishes. It is estimated that there are 80,000 Catholics in the City of Detroit but only 20,000 attend regular church functions.
Sad, but these closings should come as no surprise. Based upon the 2010 census, Detroit’s population plunged more than 25% to just 714,000 residents. Much of the former tax base is gone. Block after block of weed filled lots stand vacant – a reflection of the exodus of middle-class blacks unwilling to subject their children to schools that too often lack the audacity to expect them to succeed, and crime that appears everywhere. The enrollment in the Detroit Public Schools continues to decline with total enrollment numbers now in the range of 60,000 students down from the 179,000 students in just the year 2000. Compounding the problem is the shortage of priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit. In the year 2000, there were 414 priests. Fast forward to 2010 and the number drops to 286 and by the year 2015, the number will continue to decline to 243 priests. The age of the existing priests continues to increase with most of the current priests between the ages of 50 and 69 years.
While it is disheartening to see many of these old landmarks close, there is really no other option. It is not possible to keep a Catholic Church open for 150 parishioners. The maintenance costs alone can be staggering. There are dozens of schools, convents, and rectories as well as churches up for sale by the Archdiocese of Detroit even before the announcement of the current closings. Poor St. Leo’s is a good example. Built in 1889, St. Leo’s was big enough to serve 1000 families. Now it serves 170 families. The parish generates $1,800 in weekly giving, not enough to cover an annual budget of at least $100,000 required just for building maintenance, repairs and utilities. During a tour of the sanctuary, Father Theodore Parker suggested selling such assets as the towering statue of St. Joseph that stands in the front of the church. Father Parker even expressed doubts about the soup kitchen’s future, “we don’t know how it’s going to survive.” St. Leo’s recently had to install a new furnace for $40,000 to heat the soup kitchen.
“What hits the Church here is not a lot different than what’s happened to the city,” said Edward Miller, an ex-banking executive who is aiding the attempt to reorganize the Archdiocese. As for the Church, Archbishop Vigneron said, “there is a point where the buildings and the other property go from being assets to liabilities, no matter how sacred they may be.” Well, about all we may have going forward is a lot of good memories.