A year after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia passed into his hands, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is arguably within his rights when he avows, "It's hard to say I love it here."

Since his installation on Sept. 8, 2011, the drama has been unremitting.

He has: closed nine parishes and 27 schools; laid off 18 percent of the archdiocesan administrative staff and shut down the 117-year-old newspaper to shrink a $17.5 million operating deficit; turned over management of the high schools to a private foundation; sold the cardinal's mansion and put the retired priests' Shore villa up for sale; led a fervid religious-freedom crusade against President Obama's health-care law; seen his chief financial officer convicted of embezzling nearly $1 million; weathered the child-endangerment trial and conviction of the former head of the clergy office; removed seven sexually abusive priests from ministry - and in his words, "It's still not finished."

The problems have been so grave that any one of them "would be enough for one year, without being all in one year," Chaput said recently.

One of the worst caught him by surprise, he said. When he stepped off the plane from Denver to assume the seat vacated by Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, Chaput had "no idea at all of our financial situation," that the nation's sixth-largest Catholic diocese had been deficit-spending "for the past 15 years."

Inquiring in advance about money matters might have been perceived here as "interfering," he said, because that's how it is in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. "You're an archbishop without authority, except moral authority, until you're in the office."

Gray has advanced through the 67-year-old prelate's hair, a measure of both age and the "complicated situation" that beset him. But in an interview at archdiocesan headquarters in Center City, he showed no weariness, and burnished the bad times by calling them "a transitional stage in the life of our church."

"Some days I'm not very happy," he said, "but I've never wished I wasn't here. . .. This is my home. This is my family. This is where I'll be buried, and I've never felt I didn't want to be here."

A painful knee has hobbled him slightly; surgery is scheduled for Dec. 1. But even if the body were willing, he has had too little time to stroll the streets of Philadelphia or roam the four suburban counties. Together, they make up his bailiwick of nearly 1.5 million members, 257 parishes, 144 schools, and 12 Catholic colleges.

While much of the general populace can be "charming," the Kansas-born Capuchin friar confessed that "I've never met such an aggressive group of people in my life," especially driving. "The way people cut you off - and gesture at you, even."

Philadelphia-area Catholics surprised him as well. He discovered that their proverbial docility was a thing of the past. Early on, he invited their input via e-mail, and "they're not passive anymore," assured Chaput, himself a prolific, often fiery writer. "They certainly have told me what they think."

He has "received more negative mail about clergy" during his first year here, he said, "than in all the 23 years I've served as bishop."

From 1988 to 1997, Chaput headed the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D. He spent the following 14 years as archbishop of Denver, where he earned a national reputation as an eloquent evangelist, a forceful right-to-life advocate, and an energetic, even steely problem-solver.

In an interview just before he left Denver, Chaput said he had no idea why Pope Benedict XVI was dispatching him to Philadelphia. "Nobody told me," he asserted.

However, at his installation Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, the new archbishop spoke of "very serious challenges" ahead. Many in the great, domed sanctuary took that to mean he had been sent to mop up the scandal that had tarnished Rigali's final year here: the suspension and investigation of 26 priests for possible child sex abuse or misconduct years earlier.

Deciding their fates, Chaput would later conclude, was "the toughest issue . . . without a doubt" for him emotionally.

On May 4, he called a news conference to announce he was removing five priests from ministry; four would be restored, the accusations against them ruled "not substantiated." On July 6, he removed two more and restored four. A dozen cases await resolution.

In the recent interview, Chaput defended his decision to keep secret the allegations against the clergymen and how the panel of investigators and archdiocesan Review Board reached its conclusions. If parishioners have qualms about the process - which has cost the archdiocese about $10 million - "nobody's cranking at me," he said. "This is not an issue I'm hearing from folks."

As a relative newcomer, he had never met the seven priests he removed until he called them individually into his office to break the news. "Each one of them has a mother and father, and a parish he's been serving in, and has friends," Chaput said.

"To make one such decision in a year would be extraordinary. But to make so many in such a quick amount of time . . ." And here his voice trailed off.

A mess by any other name

Chaput judiciously avoids the word mess, but others are not so loath to use it.

"To say he inherited a mess doesn't begin to describe it," said Rita Schwartz, president of the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic Teachers.

Marie Joseph, executive director of the Yardley-based Legacy of Life Foundation, an outreach for women in "crisis pregnancies," has had an up-close view of Chaput since joining his new archdiocesan pastoral council this year. "He's inherited enough stuff to give someone a nervous breakdown," she said, "or be sucked into the kind of administrative work that would ruin them."

The new archbishop may have arrived in Philadelphia braced for the sex-abuse scourge and well-acquainted with the name of Msgr. William J. Lynn, the once highly placed administrator criminally charged with putting children in harm's way of miscreant clergy.

But his shock-and-awe moment would come three months later, compliments of his predecessors. It was the first shoe to drop in what he called his "biggest surprise": the fiscal implosion of the Catholic school system.

At one time, it was the largest in the nation, and a model for all other dioceses. But enrollment, which peaked in 1965 at 265,000, declined more than a third in the last decade, to under 70,000. So many schools were unable to pay their bills that in December 2010, the soon-to-retire Rigali appointed a 16-member study commission - a panel of which, Chaput said, he had "no awareness."

Then, in November, the commission's breathtaking report landed on Chaput's desk. It recommended the closure of 45 grammar schools and four high schools, for a projected annual savings of $10 million.

So radical was the proposed surgery that Chaput waited until Jan. 6 to unveil it. As he feared, it left students in tears, pastors stunned, and parents angry. "This is tantamount to a death," one teacher exclaimed.

Yet even before the tears had dried, Chaput threw the plan into neutral. "There's an appeals process," he declared, to just about everyone's surprise. If a school community could prove the panel's decision was based on erroneous data, he would consider sparing it.

Six weeks later, he announced that all the high schools were staying open, and that he had approved 18 of the 24 appeals from the grammar schools.

Schwartz said recently she was certain Chaput had invented the appeals process "on the spot" to stem the wave of anguish. But the archbishop said he came up with the idea "four or five days before."

"You don't make any decision," he said, "without accurate facts."

That is the archbishop's modus operandi, said Deal Hudson, former editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, for which Chaput sometimes writes.

He is "a world-class intellect in the old Western, humanist mold," Hudson said. "He understands philosophy, science, literature, and history." But, he added, Chaput also "understands institutional recovery and the foundations. . .. He won't look away from structural difficulties."

The archbishop calls them "foundational" problems, and the schools have been only part.

What makes them "foundational," he explained, is that "one way you get through difficulties is to have the resources to finance your way through them."

In the previous 15 years, Chaput discovered, his predecessors had spent more than $60 million supporting parishes that could not pay their bills or meet their annual archdiocesan assessments. It was not until early spring, he said, as he began preparing a budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, that he realized the church's operating costs would exceed projected income by $17.5 million.

"One of the realities is that we've run out of subsidy money, so I cannot keep parishes open that aren't paying for themselves," he said. "I mean, I can - some. But I can't as many as we've had, because we don't have the resources to reach in and keep them open."

So the first wave of Chaput-era parish closures broke April 15, when he merged 12 parishes in Manayunk, Germantown, and Coatesville into five, and shut down seven. He has since closed two more in Phoenixville.

"There certainly will be more" this year and next, he promised in the interview, as the archdiocesan Office for Planning scours each parish's financial, enrollment, and participation data for signs of vitality or morbidity. "Every parish has to pay its bills every year, and if the parish can't pay it, I have to pay those bills," Chaput said. "We just can't keep doing that."

Adding to his woes, the archdiocese's former chief financial officer, Anita Guzzardi, 42, was convicted in July of embezzling $906,000 over several years. She is serving a prison sentence of two to seven years.

He has taken his scalpel to archdiocesan administration and ministries. In June, after circulating a partial financial report, he shut down the youth office, the Hispanic evangelization center, the summer camp, the Catholic Standard & Times newspaper, and the glossy new monthly magazine Phaith. He also consolidated a dozen ministries and laid off 45 archdiocesan employees.

"It's not an easy or pleasant thing to do," he said. "And it shouldn't be."

Chaput has sold the stately cardinal's mansion on City Avenue to St. Joseph's University for $10 million - a deal announced Friday - and will take up residence in the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua's apartment at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. Representing a potential $6 million sale, the oceanfront villa for retired priests in Ventnor is still on the market.

He also has cut travel allowances and asked the priests to contribute more to their pensions.

"So, $400,000 here, $400,000 there, it comes to $10.5 million pretty quickly," he said, referencing the sum he believes he has trimmed from the deficit.

Even the seminary is being scrutinized for savings.

"When I left Denver, we had 80 seminarians," he said. If the far larger Philadelphia Archdiocese had the same ratio of seminarians to laity, "we'd have 240, and we have 52. I'm not satisfied with it."

With a capacious chapel, classrooms, dormitories, and administrative offices that once served 500 men at a time, Chaput said he was looking at consolidating use of the buildings. And while he is committed to "always having a seminary, no matter what," he does not rule out putting it elsewhere.

Still, he "can't sell buildings every year," he said, and so "the only way to solve this [debt crisis] is to increase income."

By year's end, he said, he wants to establish a charitable foundation similar to the Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado, which he created in his first year at Denver. The archdiocesan newspaper there described it as a "mechanism to receive major gifts, transactions and endowments" and "to support Archbishop Chaput's larger developmental issues."

In the Philadelphia version, "people who wanted to endow money for their parish could put money in, and it would be separated just for their parish," he said. "People could periodically engage with foundation personnel about redirecting how their funds are used."

He already has launched one foundation here: Faith in the Future, whose mandate is to raise $100 million in the next decade to support the schools. Last month, he took the nationally unprecedented step of handing over the management (but not ownership) of the 17 high schools and four special-education schools to the private foundation - an idea, he said, that "came from me."

Does he worry that the foundations will be dueling over the same shrinking parishioner dollar?

"People give where they want to give," Chaput said. "I find if you make the pie bigger, people will give you the ingredients to make the pie even bigger."

'Very easy to deal with'

Perhaps because of the newcomer's willingness to dive into the deep end, perhaps out of sympathy for a man with too much to worry about, Chaput's fan base right now is expansive, a mix of expected admirers and critics of previous regimes.

"I sometimes say, 'I don't know how you're dealing with all this,' " said Sister Anne Myers, president of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia and chairwoman of the conference of religious superiors in the archdiocese. "There really have been so many serious issues unattended."

Rita Schwartz, of the teachers union, praised him as a "rock star," comparatively. "He is definitely different from Rigali," she said. "Rigali was very nice but aloof, remote. Bevilacqua was approachable at first; then he got so surrounded by layers and layers that you couldn't get to him. So I find him [Chaput] very easy to deal with. I just hope what he has started here ends on a good note."

The hosanna choir, however, apparently does not sing in union about his politics.

Galling to blue-hued Catholics is the fierceness with which Chaput has denounced the Obama administration's health-care mandate, requiring virtually all employer insurance plans to cover contraceptives and some sterilization procedures.

The mandate is "the most aggressive attack on religious freedom in our country. . . in recent memory," Chaput thundered in an Inquirer opinion piece in February.

Since then, the archdiocesan website has presented at least 28 documents criticizing the contraceptive mandate on religious-freedom grounds. Parish bulletins have denounced the plan. And Chaput has blasted it in speeches in other cities.

"He's probably the most powerful of all the [American] bishops because he's got more brains than any of them," said Betty Clermont, author of the 2009 book NeoCatholics, on the rise of political conservatism among American Catholics. "He gives them their talking points."

Like Clermont, Steven Krueger, executive director of the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats, accuses Chaput and his brother bishops of using the religious-freedom issue to derail Obama's reelection bid.

"While there's nothing wrong with a Catholic bishop being a Republican or a Democrat," Krueger said, "there's something eerily unsettling when the archbishop's political affiliation and the teaching authority he rightfully claims conflate, so that he becomes more of a partisan political figure than a shepherd."

Told of Krueger's criticism, Chaput became visibly annoyed and leaned forward in his chair. "Can a group that calls itself 'Catholic Democrats' talk about politicizing things?

"That's absolutely ridiculous."

Asked if he had a preferred candidate in the presidential elections, Chaput allowed a small smile and shook his head. "I don't talk about candidates," he said. "I just talk about the issues."

The final stage

Chaput envisions a Catholic Church in Philadelphia that is solvent and scaled-down, one in which money is spent not on maintaining "structures," but on "the mission of the church, which is to preach Jesus Christ and care for the poor."

He marvels at the 27 years that Cardinal John J. Krol had at the helm of the archdiocese, and the 33 years of Cardinal Dennis J. Dougherty.

"You can be very effective," he said, "if you have a time like that."

But the archbishop has done the arithmetic. He turns 68 later this month, putting him seven years away from the church's mandatory retirement age.

By then, "I hope things will be settled some" in the archdiocese, he said. "But I don't think they'll be completely settled.

"So I imagine my whole time here will be a time of settling, but no, never attaining it."

at 610-313-8111 or doreilly@phillynews.com.