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As six parishes become three, Catholics in Camden prepare for changes

Neighborhood-based ethnic parishes are becoming a thing of the past.

Rev. Krzysztof Wtorek, of St. Joseph’s (Polish) Church in Camden, celebrates morning Mass Friday at the church in the city’s Whitman Park section. St. Joe’s will become part of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.
Rev. Krzysztof Wtorek, of St. Joseph’s (Polish) Church in Camden, celebrates morning Mass Friday at the church in the city’s Whitman Park section. St. Joe’s will become part of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

A morning Mass at St. Joseph's Church in Camden last week offered only a single and fleeting allusion to the profound changes facing the city's Catholic community.

"Whatever will happen to our parish and our church," the Rev. Krzysztof Wtorek told the five stalwarts — all but one of them senior citizens — in the pews, "our mission is to go to those who are away from God."

On July 31, St. Joe's and the city's five other remaining parishes — of the dozen that existed in the early 1970s — will be merged to form three new ones, marking the end of what for generations had been a collection of stand-alone parishes rooted in neighborhoods with distinctive ethnic identities. Catholic churches and those of other denominations are essential and enduring components of Camden's civic infrastructure, and are landmarks of help and hope to residents without regard to faith affiliation.

The mergers will not have a direct impact on the city's four parochial schools. But nearly 10,000 people on church rolls across Camden face changes in parish leadership and operations. Familiar people and programs may depart or move, and Mass schedules may change.

"There will be some grieving, because in some ways, things are dying," said the Rev. Hugh Macsherry, outgoing pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in the city's Cramer Hill section. "But there is also an opportunity for growth."

Reassuringly, a news release announcing the mergers and posted on the diocesan website June 23 prominently declared that "all affected parishes [are] to stay open for worship."

Three churches will continue to have regular Masses but likely will no longer provide other programs and services they offered as stand-alone parishes. Nevertheless, all six of the affected churches "are expected to remain open unless and until the [merged] parishes themselves decide otherwise," diocesan spokesman Michael Walsh said.

Meanwhile, Wtorek, an ebullient, pony-tailed fellow who plays guitar in a rock-gospel group, does not strike me as someone intending to preside over the demise of South Jersey's traditional seat of Polish Catholicism.

"I'm confident [St. Joe's] in its new form will stay open," he said, noting that the official outreach and evangelism center for Polish Catholics throughout the diocese will be administered through St. Joe's merger into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.

Announced last month by Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the mergers also involve the proudly African American parish founded in 1940 as St. Bartholomew's and now called St. Josephine Bakhita. It will become part of the South Camden powerhouse of Sacred Heart, whose charismatic pastor, Msgr. Michael Doyle, is 83 and fighting cancer.

Like the Polish St. Joe's, Sacred Heart enjoys significant support from the suburbs; under the merger, St. Joan of Arc, a Fairview church that also is part of Bakhita, and St. Bart's both will continue to regularly offer Mass.

As for St. Anthony, a predominantly Spanish-speaking congregation that's a Cramer Hill landmark, it will become part of St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral, which, like Sacred Heart, has nurtured housing and other programs that help make it a strong presence in the life of the larger community.

Nevertheless, "I have such a deep pain," said Cramer Hill resident Lydia Braggs, 90, who helped establish the first Spanish-language Mass at St. Anthony's in 1971. "The only thing that makes me a little bit happy," she added, "is that we will still have Masses at St. Anthony's."

Both Walsh and Wtorek said there's no truth to the rumor that the merger will mean that money St. Joe has set aside to renovate its magnificent sanctuary will instead be used to pay off debt for renovations already done at the Cathedral.

And at Sacred Heart, concerns about the future are centered more on Doyle's fragile health than on the long-expected merger with Bakhita.

Forces similar to those that fueled a difficult decade of mergers across the diocese — aging parishioners, evolving congregations, and an overabundance of expensive-to-maintain real estate, some of it in undesirable locations — propelled the merger process in the city in 2010 and this time as well.

Some of the six city parishes have chronically run in the red; others owed the diocese for certain expenses it had regularly picked up over the years. And consultants estimated upgrading all of the physical plants would cost $9.5 million.

"We've got all these buildings and parish boundaries that were perfect for the congregations for which they were built. But the demographics have changed and the finances have changed," said the Rev. Kenneth Hallahan, who recently retired as assistant pastor at Sacred Heart.

"The situation created a ministerial challenge," he added. "The church is trying to address the needs of the current population."

Merger discussions began nearly two years ago after the diocese established what became known as the "Gang of 18" — a group made up of two representatives from each of the six parishes, and six from the central office. The group met every few weeks to devise a plan and eventually used a consultant to complete the task.

"The diocese kept saying, 'We have to stop the bleeding,' " said a participant in the sessions, who asked not to be publicly identified. "We realized we had no good choices. We knew it was going to be painful."

It is: On social media, some of the faithful are expressing unhappiness or skepticism. I don't necessarily blame them, considering the unrelated fate of Our Lady of Fatima.

A South Camden institution that had continued to offer Mass after a 2010 merger with the Cathedral, Fatima was unceremoniously shut down for good Nov. 20.

"A lot of people are still upset," said Wanda Garcia, who lives in South Camden and has deep family roots at Fatima. "I'm still upset."

My family's church in western Massachusetts was closed nearly a decade ago and, mercifully, demolished in 2016 after having been abandoned to decay.

So I get how tough losses such as these can be, particularly in a city that, similar to my hometown, already has lost so many vital institutions, so many defining parts of itself.

But that's one reason I expect the community will overcome the merger challenges in Camden. Folks there are accustomed to dealing with adversity. They know how to tough it out. And they certainly know all about keeping the faith.