Leaving behind a lifetime of memories in a church is never easy. But Ukrainian Catholics in the Philadelphia region, like their Roman Catholic brethren, are contending with dwindling numbers of churchgoers in some parishes, prompting mergers as a way to survive.
For two Ukrainian Catholic parishes in Delaware County, merging at a new location next year, the decision to uproot themselves was a little easier to accept because it was made internally by parish councils, rather than ordered by the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, parishioners said.
The two parishes, Holy Ghost in Chester and SS. Peter and Paul in Clifton Heights, each had problems. The merger offers a glimpse at how one religious organization handles the tricky process of downsizing in some areas while expanding in others.
Decades ago, Holy Ghost was the kind of urban parish people would walk to, but now most of the parishioners have moved to the suburbs. In Clifton Heights, SS. Peter and Paul has a good location but no parking or space for outdoor events.
Both parishes had declining membership and were struggling to maintain themselves. The merger was helped by the fact that they shared a priest, the Rev. John Ciurpita.
"People realized that it was a matter of time, something was going to have to give. I think we're more than happy to continue what we have, even if it means somewhere else," said Christine Pluta, who owns Kyj's Bakery three blocks from Holy Ghost.
The new location is the former Leiper Presbyterian Church in Ridley Township. Leiper, with roots that went back to 1819 and a church dating to 1850, closed in January 2012.
The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, which organizationally corresponds to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, bought the Leiper church in May for $525,000 from the trustees of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.
The archeparchy is spending $200,000 to $300,000 on renovations before reopening the property as Holy Myrrh-Bearers Church in April, said Metropolitan-Archbishop Stefan Soroka, spiritual leader of more than 60,000 Ukrainian Catholics in the United States.
Soroka, based at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Northern Liberties, also leads the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, covering 67 parishes in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Thanks to strong immigration from Ukraine, Virginia and New Jersey include areas where the Ukrainian Catholic Church is growing, he said. A relatively young parish in Toms River, N.J., consecrated a new church in early October.
In Pennsylvania, the archeparchy is looking for space to build a church in Lancaster County and for a location in lower Bucks County or Northeast Philadelphia, where there is a concentration of Ukrainians but no parish.
Meanwhile, the archeparchy is trying to sell the facilities in Chester and Clifton Heights, as well as a location in Williamstown, Gloucester County.
The money from those sales will be used for new locations, just as the seed money to buy Leiper came from the sale 10 years ago of a church in Southwest Philadelphia for $425,000, Soroka said.
Though five months remain before the parishes join in the new facility, the planning process for the merger has already invigorated them, he said: "Whereas these parishes were sort of struggling to maintain themselves, there's a whole new life."