Merged Catholic parishes here thriving 20 years later


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Joe Uzar was born after a 1992 merger of five parishes in Carnegie that sparked lawsuits, appeals to the Vatican and such vitriol that the pastor took a stress leave. But Mr. Uzar, who is studying to be a priest, grew up in the merged St. Elizabeth Ann Seton unaware of the tumult that resulted in three church buildings for one parish.

"I'd go to visit a friend's parish and say, 'Where are your other churches?' I thought it was the norm," he said.

It has been 20 years since the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh launched a three-year reorganization that dissolved 163 of its 333 congregations, reassembling them into 56 merged parishes. Each used at least two buildings for Mass, while 39 churches closed. Appeals to the Vatican and 14 lawsuits changed nothing.

Mergers and closures have quietly continued, instigated by parish leaders. The diocese had 218 parishes in 1995 and has 204 today.

The reasons given for the 1992-1994 reorganization were the flight of young Catholics from former mill towns and a shortage of priests. The number of active diocesan priests has dropped from 434 in 1992 to 253.

Bishop David Zubik expects more mergers, but closures may prove difficult. Since last year, the Vatican has sided with appeals from American parishioners to reopen nearly 30 closed churches. But local Catholics in some of the most challenging mergers of 20 years ago say it's just as well that no one reversed those. The difficult changes, they said, made them stronger.

But Brody Hale, 27, a law student at Boston College who volunteers his time to help Catholics nationwide file appeals with the Vatican, believes mergers do more harm than good.

"I would argue that what has been happening in Pittsburgh for the past 20 years isn't simply a matter of demographics or the shortage of priests. It's failed policy of downsizing" that drives people away, he said.

That's not the experience of Mr. Uzar's pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who cites 100 funerals a year and the flood of 2004 as reasons that membership dropped from 6,500 in 1992 to 4,100 today.

When the Rev. David Poecking arrived in 2009, he read archived hate mail that the parish's three priests received in 1992. That anger is gone, he said. And he is the sole priest with one church building, which just had an $8 million renovation.

In September 2004, remnants of Hurricane Ivan flooded Carnegie, destroying the electrical system at one church and filling another with mold, resulting in everyone worshipping at the third site.

Due to a lack of parking there, "we lost hundreds and hundreds of parishioners" to neighboring parishes, Father Poecking said.

But "the flood was the sort of trauma that brought people together," he said.

As they worshipped together, they began talk of making it permanent.

George and Lorraine Henderson left Carnegie long before the 1992 merger and returned years later. They found no lingering animosity and supported the decision to sell two churches.

"The church was merged before the flood, but no one would admit it," Mr. Henderson said.

The debate was over which church to keep. Because of the parking problem, the unflooded site was sold. The former St. Luke's was repaired and expanded with money from insurance, property sales, diocesan loans and a capital campaign that has raised more than $1.5 million.

Treasures from the five former parishes are prominent in the church. Ethnic heritage is honored with Polish Lenten services. But there are new traditions.

A new pipe organ attracts classical recitals, while the contemporary choir is able to sell CDs of its pop-style songs. The youth group draws teens from outside the parish, and some have expressed interest in becoming Catholic.

Sunday attendance, which had dropped as low as 1,100, is rising. It averaged 1,400 in recent weeks.

Nancy Gretches, 62, remembers the pain of the 1992 merger.

"It was very difficult for me. But we have to learn to adapt," she said. "You never forget your memories. But they did their best to make everyone feel welcome and happy in a different church."

A storm also figured in the 2010 creation of Corpus Christi in McKeesport.

"It was the most peaceful and successful merger I've ever known of," the Rev. Stephen Kresak said.

In 1993, four McKeesport parishes merged to form St. Martin de Porres, which used three churches before closing two in 2007. In 1994, St. Stephens parish merged with St. Pius V but remained open until its longtime priest died in 2002. St. Mary Czestochowa held its own until the February 2010 storm that was called "Snowmageddon."

"I got a call in the middle of the night from St. Pius V," said Father Kresak, then pastor of both St. Pius and St. Mary. "There was water leaking in everywhere."

The St. Pius parishioners moved to St. Mary's. The next month, they decided to merge.

Jack Haughey, 74 and a lifelong member of St. Pius, said it had money for repairs, but parishioners had to ask who they were repairing it for.

"I had mixed emotions. I really did," he said. "But I knew that sooner or later we would have to merge. We had lots of funerals and it was just a matter of time before the money would be gone."

Then a $400,000 boiler crisis struck St. Martin de Porres, and it joined the merger. Corpus Christi was created nine months after the storm. Buildings that couldn't be sold were razed.

"I asked if they really wanted to see empty buildings fall part into decay. In the Catholic tradition, we bury our dead loved ones, mourn the loss and move forward," Father Kresak said.

Many parishioners lived outside McKeesport, some moved to the parishes where they lived. But JoAnn Faix and her husband had rejected that option in 1993 because their children liked the Sunday school in McKeesport.

"We said, 'Let's stick with it' and I'm glad we did," said Ms. Faix, 52.

When the heating system threatened to explode in 2010, people easily agreed to the second merger, she said.

"It appears to be on solid ground financially and there is good attendance at all the Masses," she said.

Father Kresak believes that "God had his finger on this whole process." Now 43, he's a spiritual son of a seven-parish 1993 merger, St. John of God in McKees Rocks.

Because he knew people who urged him to think about the priesthood, "If that merger hadn't happened, I wouldn't be a priest today," he said.

But he believes there are ways to improve on those early mergers. Back then, some pastors tried to abolish all mention of former parishes, while he believes people must be able to mourn them openly. But he has moved away from ethnic devotions at Mass, except for funerals and some Christmas songs.

He wants the parish to attract new families.

"If they come in here and they can't sing because the song is in Slovak or Hungarian, they won't come back," he said.

McKeesport has lost 24 percent of its population since 1990, while parish membership dropped 44 percent, to 3,300. Corpus Christi has about 90 funerals a year.

But attendance is up, he said. Young adults who had fallen away are returning to church. This year's 16 baptisms are up from the recent past.

The parish is in such good financial shape that last year it bought breathing masks for the fire department, bulletproof vests for the police and gave $900 to the K-9 unit. This year it gave $6,000, a tenth of its festival proceeds, to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

That makes Sharon Stipkovits, 62, proud of her parish. She didn't think she would feel that way again after St. Stephen's was forced to merge in 1993.

"It was like a knife through your heart," she said.

When the building closed in 2002, "I was able to accept it, but there were a lot of other parishioners who still felt very strongly," she said. "They continued to go to church, but they held that anger."

The 2010 merger into Corpus Christi was easy for her.

"I am just so happy to be part of this parish, I really am. It seems like the church is alive in McKeesport," she said.

Mr. Hale, the Boston opponent of church closings, said he's heard from people upset about the 2002 closure of St. Stephen's.

"I've been told pretty consistently that where parishes have merged, there has been a net drop off in attendance that goes beyond what would be accounted for otherwise," he said. "I don't doubt the sincerity of people you interview, but those are the people who are left there and the new people who have come. That doesn't take into a account those people who chose to leave."

Now, he said, the Vatican agrees that closure of a self-sufficient church is wrong.

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer at Duquesne University Law School and an expert on church property, said the Vatican has overturned closures but not mergers. That means the bishop doesn't have to send a priest for Mass, although some have.

Appeals began to succeed because Catholics hired good canon lawyers, he said. But he also suspects that new Roman officials have a new outlook.

They think "you may not need that church building now, but who knows what you will need 10, 20, 50 years from now?" he said. "So as long as there are people willing to support it, what's the harm in leaving it open?"

One answer is that buildings are expensive to maintain. Prince of Peace parish on the South Side is a 1992 merger of seven parishes that had 42 buildings. Two lawsuits kept some from being sold for 10 years while the parish struggled with a $400,000 debt.

Eventually most were sold, some for $1 to nonprofit groups.

"Even when we gave away buildings, we were still saving a lot of money on maintenance and insurance," said the Rev. Bernard Harcarik, the pastor.

The debt has been conquered. But the school closed in 2002, mostly for lack of students. The parish still runs deficits.

Father Harcarik arrived before the 1992 merger and remains, at his own request, after reaching mandatory retirement age of 75. There were four priests in 1992, but he is alone now. The four worship sites were reduced to two.

The parish has 80 funerals a year. Although the South Side is booming, new residents are largely students or childless couples who tend to move away when they start families.

"We're not seeing the ethnic families with six kids who built these churches," he said.

But "we have a lot of young professionals on the pastoral council and we have college kids coming on Sundays."

Membership has dropped from 4,000 to 1,750 since 1992, but attendance is rising. In 2010, the parish had 28 percent of its members at Mass, about the national average. In 2011, that rose to 36 percent.

Joe Bielecki, who is on the finance council, moved to the South Side to open his law office in 1993, a year after the merger.

He first went to Mass at a site where people were suing.

"There was a lot of grumbling, complaining. I was a newcomer and it was really kind of unpleasant," he said.

He switched to the site that he still attends.

"With the passage of time, you really saw all of the people come together," he said. "People could see the shortage of clergy, that the size of the parish was shrinking, and that [the merger] was ultimately a good thing."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published September 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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