The Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Friday began reassigning pastors and preparing to announce parish closings, the latest wave of reforms that could impact dozens of churches and thousands of Catholics across the region.
Many parishioners will learn the fate of their churches at weekend Mass.
"This is going to be an emotional issue," said the Rev. Tom Morris of St. Ann in Bristol Borough, Bucks County.
Pastors said Friday that St. Mark would absorb St. Ann, a parish formed at the turn of the 20th century in part by Italian immigrants who felt discriminated against at St. Mark.
"Some of them remember their great-grandparents and grandparents weren't treated very well at St. Mark," Morris said. "It is my hope that people will get over these issues and help build the community."
The impending closures are part of an ongoing church curtailment that has included the shuttering of schools, the sale of millions of dollars worth of land, and even cuts to priest pensions.
The archdiocese, which spans Southeastern Pennsylvania and has about 1.5 million Catholics, is among the largest in the country and has not been spared the challenge of dwindling attendance facing the wider church.
To address the decline, the archdiocese established its Parish Area Pastoral Planning Commission and has closed 31 parishes since 2012, leaving 235 remaining. The 46 awaiting news in Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties began undergoing reviews in September.
Archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin said others had yet to go through the reviews, but he was unable to provide a number, saying the process started in 2011 and was expected to take five to eight years to complete. The latest closings, he said, will officially take effect July 1, but the transitions will be tailored to meet the parishes' needs.
The cuts, which Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said were aimed at restoring financial health after years of "well-intentioned but poor financial management," seemed to be serving their purpose. The archdiocese has significantly reduced its day-to-day operating deficit to $4.9 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, from $17.6 million in 2012. But it still has a long way to go to fill long-term gaps in pension and other liabilities.
Gavin said pastors at the parishes currently under review received word Friday.
The Rev. Roland D. Slobogin, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Drexel Hill, said Friday afternoon as he entered archdiocesan headquarters in Center City for a meeting there was no good way to handle church closings.
"I didn't get ordained to do this. Hopefully, we can build something stronger," said Slobogin, dean of a group of parishes in eastern Delaware County who was involved in the current parish review.
Other priests at the meeting, held to address new pastoral assignments, said they knew nothing about what would be announced at Masses on Saturday.
"You could find out more by asking at the front desk than by asking us. They don't tell us anything," a priest in a group of eight said as they filed through the doors.
Those waiting for the news in their church rectories seemed resigned and cautiously optimistic.
At Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Swarthmore, Delaware County, the Rev. Karl Zeuner said he felt confident because the church had paid its bills on time and was relatively large, with 1,400 households. Still, nothing was certain until they heard official word.
About 100 people from there and from Our Lady of Peace Church in Milmont Park gathered Tuesday night to pray that both parishes would be spared, said Angela Custerbeck, business manager at Notre Dame de Lourdes.
The Rev. Salvatore Pronesti, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, appeared pensive after receiving an e-mail Friday from the archdiocese about the fate of his parish.
Standing on the porch of the rectory, looking out at the towering church and an empty building that once housed a parish school, he declined to say what the e-mail contained but said bluntly he wasn't doing well.
Pronesti said members of his congregation as well as of nearby parishes - Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, St. Augustine in Bridgeport, and Sacred Heart in Swedesburg - who took part in the church study recommended keeping Our Lady of Mount Carmel open.
"But, as always, the archdiocese holds the last card," he said.
Most parishioners will learn the future of their churches at weekend Mass, but Ralph DiGuiseppe of Bristol knew Friday that St. Ann would close.
"You put your life into the church, and then it's like a slap in the face from the archdiocese," said DiGuiseppe, the Borough Council president, adding that as a contractor, he had helped refurbish the parish's building at no cost.
"They throw you aside like you don't have a decision in this," he said. "Their main concern is finances. It's all about money anymore."
At St. Mary in Conshohocken, 73-year-old Pat Monastero carried a box of plastic bags to her car, preparing for the parish's June 8 Polish Food Festival and trying not to focus on the news ahead.
She has been running the festival kitchen for years, helping make the traditional Polish platters piled high with golumpki, perogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut, and rye bread that will sell by the hundreds. But her family's history here runs deeper than her own memory: Her grandmother joined St. Mary as a 16-year-old immigrant.
"I don't worry about the transition," she said of the potential closure. "It's just losing your roots, your heritage."