Ever since word came down that St. Ann Church and Parish have less than a year to live, there’s been much invoking of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. So far, as a lot of parishioners will tell you, they have not moved from Stage Two: Anger.
While I’m nearly through Stage Three — Bargaining, with Depression next in line — I understand the fury.
A plucky little congregation in a neighborhood with major economic, social and spiritual challenges, a parish that has nurtured souls since its founding in 1876, has been selected for extinction. Despite careful management of its money, despite its inventiveness in turning its former grade school into thriving medical and dental clinics for the poor, despite requiring the presence of an actual priest only two hours a week to function quite efficiently — St. Ann’s will be closed.
The decision was announced in a July letter from Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein and it was the culmination of years of strategizing within the Terre Haute Deanery. Unlike many other such closings across the United States, however, this one was not done by hierarchical fiat. Every parish had representatives on the planning team. There was an appeals process and St. Ann’s representatives fought hard for a reprieve. Not least of them was Sister Connie Kramer, the Parish Life Coordinator, whose job will disappear with the parish.
In the end, it came down to what it has come down to over the past three decades as thousands of U.S. Catholic churches and schools have been shuttered or merged: numbers.
Since 1980, the number of ordained priests and vowed religious laity (primarily, nuns) has decreased by 41 percent. Just since 2000, about 1,400 parishes have been closed or consolidated. Meanwhile, contrary to popular perception, the number of U.S. Catholics has actually increased. According to an enlightening national survey by a consortium of parish ministry organizations, some 77.7 million people in the United States identify themselves as Catholic. The number is expected to reach 110 million by midcentury. Latino households make up the single largest growth group among registered parishioners.
The result of these many losses and gains?
“Bigger parishes, more Masses, and ministries in languages other than English are becoming the norm,” wrote Mary L. Gautier and Mark M. Gray of the consortium, Emerging Models of Catholic Leadership. Their survey report, titled, “The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes,” also revealed:
• The average parish weekend Mass attendance is 1,100.
• About half of all parishes celebrate four or more weekend Masses; nearly 30 percent celebrate five or more.
• Only one in 10 parishes celebrates just one weekend Mass.
• The average number of registered households in a parish is 1,200, while parishes with 200 or fewer registered households have dropped from 24 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010.
The four local parishes to be closed serve about 325 registered households, less than 10 percent of the Terre Haute Deanery. St. Ann, the largest of the four, celebrates but one Mass on weekends and counts 118 households and about 240 parishioners on its rolls. They may be loyal and enthusiastic, but their numbers are dwindling, not growing, and they can’t donate enough money to keep open their church, parish hall and bare-bones parish office. How bare bones? Sister Connie is the only salaried staffer working 20 or more hours per week. In contrast, nationally, the average comparable parish staff is 9.5 people.
Of course, when I say “they” of St. Ann’s, I mean “we.” The parish has been mine since I moved back to Terre Haute in 2004. More times than I can remember, I have sat or knelt in a pew during Mass, and thought, “If this place ever closes, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
St. Ann’s epitomizes Catholic Christian values for me. All are welcome at the table. All are useful. All have dignity. All are children of God, worthy of mercy, seven times 70. At St. Ann’s, a preferential option for the poor is Job No. 1, not an afterthought.
Like any family, we quarrel among ourselves. We have political and philosophical differences; we even have cliques. But we put them all aside when it matters, especially each Sunday at Mass. We are tight, committed, united in our faith.
Buechlein wrote in his letter that the decision to close St. Ann’s “was agonizing.” I believe him. He has watched in gratitude and respect over the years as Sister Connie has inspired the parish to join forces with the Sisters of Providence and Catholic Charities and be the host site of remarkable, life-saving outreach ministries, such as the clinics and Bethany House shelter and kitchen.
I believe our shrinking numbers and the complex socio-economic realities of the larger Catholic Church doomed us, not the quality of our hearts or the productivity of our hands. Probably, that is why I didn’t spend long in angry Stage Two.
I have few illusions about the breadth of those complex realities, by the way. As an adult convert, I knew when I signed up that Catholicism is not a democracy, and I have since learned that periodic suffering from the internal problems of the Church — the accidental and the self-inflicted problems — comes with the territory. You either accept that or you’re crazy not to get out.
Which isn’t to say you accept all the CAUSES of the suffering — the sexism, elitism, abuse scandals, coverups, misused funds or aversion to solid science and good health practices (to name a few). Being an adherent of any religion is not unlike being a citizen of a (non-democratic) nation: You may disagree with all sorts of programs and people — and you can work and agitate for change — but your allegiance transcends people and programs. It is about something much bigger.
Depressed and sad as I will be, I plan to follow Sister Connie’s lead and extract every drop of community life I can from the church and parish of St. Ann, until the last Mass is celebrated May 20. What we’ve got going at 1440 Locust St. is exceedingly rich and rare — from the superb homilies of our young circuit-riding priest, Father Rob Hausladen, to the bonhomie we share at parish suppers. Like life on this side of the great divide, I choose to participate with gusto, knowing it won’t last forever.
Stephanie Salter may be e-mailed at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.