Catholic diocese closing three Pittsburgh-area churches in parish mergers

St. Helen and St. William in East Pittsburgh, St. Anthony in Monongahela shutting

Parish mergers in the Diocese of Pittsburgh will mean the closure of two churches in East Pittsburgh and another in Monongahela next month, the result of dwindling numbers of parishioners and priests as well as financial concerns.

Bishop David Zubik broke the news in letters read at Masses over the weekend to hundreds of parishioners of Holy Cross Parish in East Pittsburgh and Good Shepherd Parish in Braddock, and in person during a Saturday Mass in St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Monongahela. The merger and closures will take effect April 28.

The 346 Holy Cross parishioners will be merged into Good Shepherd. Holy Cross' two churches, St. Helen and St. William, will be permanently closed, and its pastor, the Rev. Miroslaus A. Wojcicki, will be reassigned.

"The communities of East Pittsburgh, Braddock, North Braddock and Braddock Hills have been strongholds of the Catholic faith since so many of our ancestors came to work in the mills more than 100 years ago," Bishop Zubik wrote. "Though your faith has remained constant, much else has changed. The mills are gone and along with them the jobs that once kept many people in the parishes in which they had grown up."

The merger will bring Good Shepherd's number of registered parishioners to 1,744 and eliminate Holy Cross' average annual deficit of $54,000.

"In 2012, [Holy Cross] had one baptism and 19 funerals, and that trend was unlikely to reverse," the diocese said in a news release.

Farther down the Monongahela River, the closure of St. Anthony Catholic Church on Park Avenue in Monongahela closes the book on the contentious 2011 merger that created the new St. Damien of Molokai Parish out of St. Anthony and Transfiguration parishes.

Last fall, Bishop Zubik raised the possibility of eliminating a parish in Monongahela altogether.

"I raised the bar on this issue because the parish has become so fractured that a number of people were unable to behave charitably toward each other, your pastor, and, quite honestly, toward me, your bishop," he wrote.

Demonstrators opposed to the closure of St. Anthony held vigils with as many as 100 people and picketed the bishop's office in Pittsburgh, prompting meetings between the bishop and parishioners. The finance and pastoral councils of the new parish were unable to reach a consensus over the future of the buildings and asked Bishop Zubik to make the decision.

Bishop Zubik said hundreds of written responses from parishioners convinced him the Catholic community in Monongahela has "the wherewithal to help St. Damien of Molokai Parish grow" but that only one church building would survive.

The former Transfiguration Church on Main Street will be renamed St. Damien of Molokai and St. Anthony, which had been limited to weekly Masses and special events in recent years, will be closed for worship.

"The effort to maintain multiple buildings drains resources from the parish's primary mission of spreading the gospel," the diocese said in a news release. "Offerings in fiscal 2012-13 totaled $395,477, which isn't enough to cover the expenses of a parish with two churches, two rectories and two school buildings, including expenses for insurance, maintenance and security at unused buildings."

The bishop said the Transfiguration building was chosen over St. Anthony because of its central location, as well as the "condition and efficiency of the heating and air-conditioning systems, the quality of the sound system and the proximity of the [Madonna Catholic Regional] school."

The Rev. Bill Terza, pastor of St. Damien of Molokai Parish, said the closure was the result of years of analysis, adding that the 1,400 families the parish serves don't need two churches seven blocks apart. He said it was too soon to comprehensively gauge the reaction from his flock.

"A few people yesterday after Mass were not too happy," Father Terza said. "On the whole they've accepted the merger, and we're moving ahead now."

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo First Published March 23, 2014 7:13 PM

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