Five Catholic churches slated to close at the end of the month, together totaling more than 13,000 parishioners, have filed appeals with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
Though their chances of winning are minimal, and the process is costly and lengthy, some parishes already are preparing for a second step: sending their cases to Rome.
Any appeals will not delay parish mergers, set to take effect July 1. So, as they prepare to shut their doors, a few parishes are also hiring lawyers familiar with church law, holding meetings, and raising money.
By Tuesday's deadline to file appeals with the archbishop, the archdiocese had received letters from the five parishes, in Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks Counties. Church law allows Chaput 30 days to respond. Parishioners can then appeal to the Vatican.
"We're ready," said Ralph DiGuiseppe, a parishioner at St. Ann Church in Bristol Township, Bucks County. "The appeal process is being formulated now. So, if this request is turned down, we'll file the appeal to Rome."
The archdiocese announced this month that 16 parishes would close and merge with 13 nearby parishes. The latest round of parish closings would leave the archdiocese with 219 parishes - 47 fewer than it had four years ago.
No appeal to the archdiocese or the Vatican has succeeded since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began merging parishes in 2010, although one local parish - St. Joachim Church in Northeast Philadelphia, which closed last year - is still awaiting the results of its Vatican appeal.
Local parishes planning to send their cases to Rome would join a number across the country that have appealed parish closings in recent years, as the church faces changing demographics and a declining number of priests. Appeals to the Vatican have been successful in a handful of cases.
The Philadelphia-area parishes fighting to stay open include a Bucks County church built by Italian immigrants, a Delaware County parish with an attached elementary school, and a Montgomery County church with nearly 4,000 parishioners.
In addition to St. Ann, the parishes targeted for closing are Notre Dame de Lourdes in Swarthmore, Delaware County; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Bensalem, Bucks County; St. John of the Cross Church in Roslyn, Montgomery County; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin said.
Among the reasons those parishes have listed for appealing are healthy finances, inadequate handicapped accessibility at the parishes they are scheduled to join, and a lack of explanation from the archdiocese on why it must close a parish.
At Notre Dame de Lourdes, a committee of pastors and parishioners recommended keeping the parish open, and financial reports showed the church had a budget surplus in the last fiscal year. Our Lady of Peace, with which it would merge, ran a deficit. Parishioners are appealing the decision.
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, parishioner Megan Rutter said plans were underway for the final Sunday Mass on June 29. But she and others are hanging onto hope that, with an appeal, it will not be the parish's last Mass.
"We're kind of hoping to be left alone," she said.