Parishes are merged due to demographic change

Most Precious Blood Church, at 109 Mulberry St., will merge into the parish of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, two blocks to the north.  Photo by Zach Williams

BY ZACH WILLIAMS  |  Two local Catholic parishes will cease holding regular Mass services as part of a reshuffling of church resources in Lower Manhattan and throughout the Archdiocese of New York.

A handful of area parishes will each absorb a neighboring parish as part of a plan unveiled on Nov. 2 by the archdiocese. In most of these cases, however, regular services and sacraments will continue at individual churches that are not the designated parish church.

But for the Lower East Side’s St. James and St. Joseph Church, at 5 Monroe St., and the East Village’s Nativity Mission, at 44 Second Ave., there is an extra degree of uncertainty as their parishes respectively merge with Church of the Transfiguration, at 29 Mott St., and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, at 173 E. Third St.

For staff, clergy and parishioners, many details remain undecided at the soon-to-be closed churches throughout the archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and seven Upstate counties. Among the lingering questions are who will lead the combined parishes, as well as the future of unused church properties in the hot local real estate market.

“At the present moment, I am not sure what they will do with me,” Father Lino Gonsalves, pastor of St. James and St. Joseph, said.

Combining the two parishes with Church of the Transfiguration necessitates decisions on everything from administrative details to parish clergy — a process that, he added, should conclude by the archdiocese’s Aug. 1, 2015, deadline for the announced mergers. By that time, 112 out of 368 current parishes in the archdiocese will combine to form 55 new parishes, according to a Nov. 2 statement.

Farther north, in Chelsea, St. Columba Church, at 343 W. 25th St., will merge with Guardian Angel Church, at 193 Tenth Ave. While St. Columba may still be used for special occasions, Mass and services will no longer be held there.

“Everyone’s learning a new dance,” Father Joseph Tyrrell of St. Peter’s Church, at 22 Barclay St., said. Under the archdiocese plan, which was five years in the making, his parish will absorb that of nearby Our Lady of the Rosary, at 7 State St., though the latter will continue to hold regular Mass and sacraments.

Additional mergers could still be announced in the coming months, the statement added. Details also remain unclear on what will happen with underutilized church-owned real estate, in order to further social initiatives, such as affordable housing and education programs, according to the statement.

The archdiocese, along with many of the local parishes, did not respond to requests for comment by press time. However, in a letter published last year in Catholic New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan outlined how Lower Manhattan parishes exemplify the challenges facing the archdiocese.

There are 29 parishes below 14th St. among the more than 80 in Manhattan, he noted then. Yet Manhattan parishes comprise about 25 percent of the archdiocese’s total while only serving about 10 percent of the Catholic population of more than 2 million people he oversees, according to the letter.

An anticipated shortage of priests further strains the archdiocese’s ability to man so many parishes, Dolan added.

“Having this large number of parishes certainly made sense when they were established, mostly in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries,” he said in the letter published Oct. 3, 2013. “They no longer make sense now in the 21st century and on into the future.”

At Most Precious Blood Church, at 109 Mulberry St., on a recent Sunday morning, the grandiose architecture contrasted starkly with the scant attendance. The church first opened its doors in the 1880s when Italian immigrants dominated the area. Outside, a sign informed worshipers that the church would not conduct afternoon services.

No more than two dozen parishioners were attending morning services in a building that could seat many more among its pews. Nonetheless, the church will continue to host regular Sunday and Saturday Masses and services even as it integrates into the nearby parish of the basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at 263 Mulberry St.

Connie, a parishioner who declined to give her last name, said she was glad she can still regularly attend Most Precious Blood, which her family has attended since her grandparents immigrated to America from Naples, Italy.

She said she still hopes that eventually attendance there will turn around, so that this family legacy continues. Everywhere she looks within the church, she said, she sees the places where family members married, got baptized and worshiped among the faithful as they lived their lives.

Meanwhile, fellow worshipers concede, given the Catholic Church’s struggles in many communities, combining parishes made sense.

“I’m hoping that it will attract more people to one central location to pray and worship,” said Melissa Soto, a Grand St. resident, “and that it will help provide more funds to create a stability within a church community that’s been unstable for so long.”

In addition, the Church of St. Andrew, at 20 Cardinal Hayes Place, will merge with Our Lady of Victory, at 60 William St. Masses and services will continue to be held at St. Andrew, however.

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