When he took charge of the Diocese of Camden on April 30, 2004, Bishop Joseph A. Galante had no plan to close parishes - let alone embark on the most sweeping reorganization any Catholic diocese in the nation has ever seen.
Four years after arriving here from Dallas, however, he stunned his 500,000-member flock with news he was closing or merging nearly half the 124 parishes in the six counties.
Likening the process to the quick sting of "pulling off a Band-Aid," he conceded his "radical" approach would cause grief and anger. But in years to come, he promised, it would bring community, "vibrancy," and financial solvency to the congregations.
Today, the 73-year-old bishop says his stewardship of the ambitious overhaul might end sooner than he once expected. Poor health could force him to step down well before his scheduled retirement in 15 months.
After a decade battling the Type-2 diabetes he "inherited from my father and grandfather," Galante has entered what he calls "end-stage" kidney failure. Two months ago, he began dialysis treatments three days a week at a Camden clinic.
Son of a Northeast Philadelphia grocer, he long struggled with being overweight. Now he has lost 19 pounds.
Dialysis is "not uncomfortable," he said in an interview at his offices in Camden. "I get a chance to pray my breviary and do a lot of reading."
"Watching my blood flowing through tubes" for six hours, "I recognize my dependency on a machine," he said, "and that reminds me of my dependency on God."
The "biggest downside" to his renal disease is low energy, he said. However, he soon is to begin daily but briefer dialysis at his home in Blackwood. That, he hopes, will leave him with the strength to run the diocese through July 2, 2013, when he turns 75, retirement age for bishops.
While he joked he "gets more work done [at the clinic] than at my office," he said he has to face "the possibility that there may come a time [before age 75] when I might not be able to continue."
The severity of his parish consolidation prompted a complaint to the Vatican from within the Philadelphia Archdiocese. But radical surgeries are now a familiar chore for many older Catholic dioceses, especially in the Northeast.
Last Sunday, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced he was closing seven churches at the start of what will be an approximately two-year process of parish self-study that could lead to many more closings among the 267 congregations. Archdiocesan officials say they do not anticipate anything close to the number of closings in the Camden Diocese.
Galante defends the sweep of his reconfiguration - which left just 70 parishes dotting Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties - as "inevitable."
Sunday Mass attendance was at 23 percent when he arrived, he said. The supply of active priests was in steep decline. Nearly a third of his parishes were "on the dole," unable to cover their bills.
"That's what led to the merger process," said Galante. "We couldn't keep bailing out parishes" at a cost of "millions" to the diocese.
"Inaction is not an option," he told a news conference April 3, 2008, as he unveiled his consolidation plan.
Thirty-two parishes would remain intact, but 92 would dissolve into 38, all with new names, pastors, and parish and financial councils.
To soften the blow, 27 merged parishes were permitted to maintain one or more churches from a defunct parish. These "worship sites" would be used for Masses, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and other events.
Most parishioners accepted the changes, albeit reluctantly. But the closures also provoked public demonstrations, including a weeks-long occupation of St. Mary's in Malaga, Gloucester County, whose parishioners were exceptionally devotional. (The little parish remains closed.)
There were also calls for Galante's resignation, threatened lawsuits, and 11 petitions to the Vatican seeking the overturn of his orders.
While the Vatican has rejected the reorganization plans of several dioceses, including Cleveland and Allentown, it upheld Galante's decisions in every case. "We were very meticulous about following procedure," he said, but some mergers are still meeting resistance.
"One of the biggest obstacles I've discovered is the sense of civil divisions," he said. "We have so many towns, and people are, like, 'We live in Barrington, so we won't cross Route 130 to go to Bellmawr.' "
Galante never anticipated that the four townships sharing one barrier island at the Shore and bearing the name Wildwood would be so insular. "It's amazing," he said. "People in one part of the island see themselves as independent from the rest. So, what we're doing is quite countercultural."
Larry Farmer, head of the diocesan planning commission, said in a recent interview that average Sunday Mass attendance now stands at 103,000, down from 113,000 in 2006, but he believes "that number has stabilized."
Next month, he said, Galante will present the results of a religious-attitudes survey of 600 households - a diocese-commissioned phone poll by the Barna Group. The results will help shape an evangelization initiative.
Among the most contentious closures was Galante's merger of St. Vincent Pallotti in Haddon Township with St. Aloysius in Oaklyn. St. Vincent's pastor rallied his parishioners to a protest that included a letter-writing campaign, denunciations of Galante, and a petition to the Vatican seeking an overrule.
Galante relented, making St. Vincent's the parish center. The newly named St. Joseph the Worker parish has seen its membership swell from 750 to 1,100, according to its new pastor, the Rev. Walter A. Norris.
"I think it worked out for everybody," Norris said last week, although the Sunday crowds have irked some parishioners. "I used to have a whole pew to myself," one woman recently complained.
Among the mergers Galante views as particularly successful is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lindenwold, formed in December 2009.
A behemoth of 12,000 members, it resulted from the merger of St. Luke's in Stratford, Our Lady of Grace in Somerdale, and St. Lawrence's on White Horse Pike in Lindenwold, now the center of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
'The United Nations'
Renamed for the patron saint of Mexico and the Americas, the tall, redbrick complex houses the new parish's offices and the records of all three former parishes.
Integrating the three has been challenging, said its pastor, the Rev. Joseph Capella. St. Lawrence in Lindenwold comprised predominantly poorer and Hispanic members who lived in apartment buildings, while parishioners at St. Luke's and Our Lady of Grace were mostly of European ancestry.
Some parishioners from Stratford and Somerdale "simply refused" to come to downscale Lindenwold, said Capella, "but we've attracted new people and become quite diverse. You see the United Nations walking out of Mass."
To give parishioners from Our Lady of Grace a sense of continuity, Capella installed its marble altar and gilded tabernacle at a new chapel at the parish center. And to foster a sense of belonging for his diverse Hispanic community, he invited them to build a grotto and shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe behind the main church.
Capella also advertises the parish on the PATCO High-Speed Line, which passes through Lindenwold, and on the place mats at three diners.
At Easter, he admitted 76 converts to the parish, and new members register "almost every week."
On Thursday, 20 teenagers gathered for the parish youth group's regular meeting in Lindenwold, with youngsters from all three former parishes seated on sofas or the floor of a converted classroom.
Monica Segeren, 15, said she found it "really difficult" when St. Luke's closed because she was preparing for Confirmation. But the youth group at Our Lady of Guadalupe is much larger and busier than the one she knew at St. Luke's, and its Spanish-language Masses are "just amazing. I love the energy they [Latinos] put into it - the clapping and singing. I don't understand it all, but it's fun."
Melissa Hernandez, 14, called the merger "the best thing that happened" at the parish since she arrived, at age 7. "Now the Latinos mix with the Americans," she said. "It's really nice."
Galante said he remained optimistic that his parish configuration will foster the "vibrancy" he envisioned when he embarked on the overhaul nearly six years ago.
"The results are not going to be [fully] evident for a long time," he said. "I'm planting seeds that need to be tended in order to germinate. I always said I would not be here to see their full flowering."