The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh tends to hold more funerals these days than baptisms. This, coupled with an overall population loss, has caused the diocese to merge parishes over the years.
Last weekend, the diocese announced the latest merger -- four parishes in northern Beaver County will merge July 15 to create St. Monica Parish. It will be the largest territorial parish in Beaver County with about 6,000 parishioners.
The number of mergers has leveled off following a peak period between 1992 to 1995 when the diocese merged 315 parishes into 215 in Western Pennsylvania, said the Rev. Samuel J. Esposito, episcopal vicar for Region 3 of the diocese.
"The reality is so many of the smaller parishes can't survive on their own," he said.
The merger will consolidate Christ the Divine Teacher in Chippewa, Divine Mercy and St. Philomena in Beaver Falls, and St. Rose of Lima in South Beaver into one parish with one school, Divine Mercy Academy.
Mergers are not only occurring in Western Pennsylvania as many dioceses in the Northeast face the same situation, Father Esposito said.
"While the number of Catholics in the U.S. has remained steady with the growth of the population, the clergy has not done the same," Father Esposito said, adding that when parishes merge, they tend to be stronger in terms of programs for youth and outreach to poor people.
"This merging is everywhere. People read the signs of the times," he said.
"Rather than shriveling, we can be a stronger parish and be able to hang onto something like what was given to us."
The Rev. Kim J. Schreck, pastor of Christ the Divine Teacher and St. Rose of Lima, has been appointed by the diocese as pastor of the new parish, which will be served by three church buildings -- St. Rose of Lima, Christ the Divine Teacher and St. Philomena.
In June 2012, St. Mary's Church at Divine Mercy had structural problems and resources were not available to repair it. The building was condemned by Beaver Falls officials, Father Esposito said. Masses were celebrated in the school's gymnasium for the summer. After school resumed, Masses were moved to Christ the Divine Teacher and St. Philomena parishes.
Bishop David A. Zubik worked with the Rev. James B. Farnan, pastor of St. Philomena and Divine Mercy, and Father Schreck to complete the process of the merger that began in 2007. A formal petition was signed this spring.
The four parishes have begun merging programs and in the last three years, 75 people have joined and the confirmation classes have increased from 11 to between 60 and 80, Father Farnan said.
"As everything began to merge, there were more resources, people and energy," he said.
At this year's Easter vigil, choirs from the parishes performed together and 26 people were welcomed into the church. After the nearly three-hour service, parishioners said the serice was beautiful and if it indicated what could happen with the merger, then they were happy, Father Farnan said. "That is really the spirit of the people right now."
As part of the transition, the Rev. John F. Naugle, parochial vicar at St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Upper St. Clair, will be parochial vicar at St. Monica Parish.
Father Farnan will become pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Bethel Park, which is already familiar to him because his brother and his brother's children attend that parish, he said.
"It is going to be tough leaving the people of Beaver County, who are good wholesome people," he said. "It is an emotional roller coaster."
Father Farnan said the transition is going to be difficult for Father Schreck.
"This tests the Catholic sense that we have," Father Farnan said. "It shows that it is more than a parish or a county, and that we are more than that. We are a universal church and the people realize that."neigh_west
Claire Aronson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.