Two Catholic parishes in Mount Washington may merge

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A committee that has been studying the possible merging of two Catholic churches in Mount Washington during the past two years announced Sunday that it will recommend closing St. Justin Catholic Church and consolidating the parish into St. Mary of the Mount Church on Grandview Avenue. Services for the hearing impaired at St. Justin, including a sign-language Mass each Sunday, are expected to continue.

The recommendation will come from the Envisioning Ministry Planning Team, comprised of seven members from both churches, and will be forwarded to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Bishop David A. Zubik for a final decision.

The process began in a perhaps-unexpected way, especially after so many other local Catholic parishes found themselves unpleasantly surprised by recent announcements from the diocese of closures and forced mergers.

"Father [Walter Rydzon] and I initiated the process," said the Rev. Michael Stumpf, pastor of St. Mary, about himself and the priest at St. Justin. "We've been trying to be aware of the signs of the times in our communities and respond to them."

The reality for the Mount Washington churches -- and thousands more across the nation -- has been dwindling resources and an overall decline in participation in church activities in recent years.

Efforts to attract younger parishioners and priests, such as 39-year-old Father Stumpf, also have been a challenge for the church.

According to financial and other data released by the planning team, which held a town hall meeting attended by about 100 people at St. Justin on Sunday, the two churches, combined, will finish 2012 with expenditures that exceed income by more than $40,000.

St. Justin has about 1,970 parishioners, with 288 active members, while St. Mary has a total of 2,612 members, 600 of which attend church regularly.

In both cases, flagging attendance and declining revenues will likely keep the parishes in the red for the next several years if no action is taken, according to the data, resulting in combined deficits of as much as $211,000 by 2018.

To address the changing demographics and financial realities, fathers Rydzon and Stumpf, along with planning team members, gathered feedback and data and will propose seven recommendations to the bishop, including the shuttering of St. Justin by early next year.

Other recommendations include the formation of joint committees to ease the transition, hiring an architect to assess whether the 115-year-old St. Mary structure would need any improvements in order to expand, and consolidation of staff members. Parishioners also felt strongly that nonreligious ministries sponsored by the churches, such as a food pantry and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, should be maintained.

If their recommendations are followed, the group feels the consolidated churches would come close to breaking even and perhaps might even make a modest profit if unused church properties, such as the 55-year-old St. Justin, are sold.

"Change is never easy, especially when you're losing something that's so much a part of your history," Rev. Stumpf said. "At the same time, people are understanding that because we've been as open as we can in sharing data it expresses the reality and I think people see that."

One of those people is Mike Bobanic of Aliquippa, who served on the planning team as a voice for the local deaf community. For the past 18 years, St. Justin has served as the only church in the diocese with sign-language services. It serves 150 deaf parishioners, including 60 who are active each week. They come from as far away as Glassport, Greensburg and Youngstown, Ohio.

Mr. Bobanic, who is deaf, said through an interpreter that while a move to St. Mary isn't ideal, the deaf community realizes it's necessary.

"We're used to being here; we built a church and a community here," he said of St. Justin, where deaf parishioners usually stay after church services to socialize. "We've adopted this as our home, but if St. Mary's is comfortable welcoming us, we'll go through that process."

Father Rydzon spent two years learning sign language to communicate with his parishioners, and Mr. Bobanic said having a pastor who signs is the top priority of members of the deaf community.

Parishioners from St. Mary who attended the meeting said they realize how important it will be to welcome the deaf community and hope to begin doing so during an ethnic festival at St. Mary on Oct. 12-14.

In the meantime, Father Stumpf said he is learning sign language and expects the sign-language masses from St. Justin to continue at St. Mary.

"I'm trying to learn," Father Stumpf said. "[Father Rydzon] is teaching me."

Also important to the deaf community are ironing out some logistical issues, such as how a deaf choir would be incorporated into a traditional Mass and having sign-language interpreters highly visible during scripture readings.

Though the pastor of the consolidated parish will be determined by Bishop Zubik, Father Rydzon gave a hearty recommendation to his younger colleague, calling him "the perfect candidate," to lead the expanded group.

Father Rydzon, 65, plans to retire in the next several years and hopes to be transferred to St. Mary for at least a year, to help with the transition and to continue teaching Father Stumpf to sign.

The next step in the process will be for the planning team to present its findings and recommendations to the diocese and hope that they are accepted. The group also hopes the diocese will agree that a consolidation, rather than a merger, would be a more feasible idea so that St. Mary doesn't need to change its name or incur any additional expense.

Father Stumpf said it thought it was highly likely that the bishop would look upon the arrangement with a friendly eye, especially due to the positive way it has been handled by both churches.

"From the very onset, we've not looked at this as a death but as a resurrection, that's our Christian ministry," Father Stumpf said. "How do we re-envision? How do we become more alive and not dead? We need to minister differently."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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