In a move that will translate into big changes for Catholics in Camden, the Diocese of Camden on Friday announced that it is merging the city's six parishes into three, citing population changes, dwindling congregation sizes, and decreases in revenue as reasons behind the mergers.
The mergers, effective July 31, come after a nearly two-year review.
The worship sites or churches in the parishes will remain open initially, the diocese said. But whether or not they stay open will depend on later decisions made by the newly formed parishes' leadership and their councils.
The parish mergers are as follows:
• St. Josephine Bakhita Parish, which has two churches — one that is predominantly black, the other predominantly Hispanic — will merge into Sacred Heart Parish, which is predominantly white. Msgr. Michael Doyle, the beloved 82-year-old pastor of Sacred Heart, who has jaw cancer, will continue to serve as pastor of Sacred Heart and will administer the new parish together with the Rev. Gerard Marable of St. Josephine Bakhita, who will also serve as pastor and moderator.
• St. Joseph Parish, the symbolic heart of Polish Catholicism that has faced a shrinking congregation, will merge into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Parish, in downtown Camden, which has a predominantly Latino congregation. The Rev. John Fisher will continue as rector of the cathedral.
• St. Anthony of Padua Parish, a predominantly Hispanic parish in the Cramer Hill section of the city, which is run by Franciscan friars who have announced their decision to leave, will merge into St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral Parish, about a mile away in East Camden. The Rev. Jaime Hostios will continue as pastor of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral Parish, which is also predominantly Latino.
The merger of St. Josephine Bakhita into Sacred Heart is yet another parish merger for black Catholics in Camden. In 2010, St. Josephine Bakhita was established after the merger of St. Bartholomew Parish, which was founded in 1940 for and by African Americans at a time when they were not welcomed in many Catholic churches, and St. Joan of Arc Parish, which has in more recent years attracted a growing Latino congregation.
The parish's two churches — St. Bartholomew's on Kaighn Avenue and St. Joan of Arc on Alabama Road, about two miles away — still exist under St. Josephine Bakhita. Now, with the coming merger, it will be "really three congregations coming together," the Rev. Ken Hallahan, an assistant priest at both Sacred Heart and St. Josephine Bakhita, said Saturday.
In its statement, the diocese said that Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan has decreed that an apostolate or ministry be created at Sacred Heart Parish to serve African American Catholics, who have been served by St. Josephine Bakhita Parish, and previously by St. Bartholomew Parish.
Likewise, the bishop decreed that an apostolate or ministry be created at the Parish of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to serve the Polish Catholic community that has been served by St. Joseph Parish.
Rocco Palmo, a Catholic journalist in Philadelphia who writes for the news website Whispers in the Loggia, said Saturday that the Diocese of Camden has been "extraordinarily delicate" in its handling of the mergers.
"They know the people in Camden City, between the violence, the poverty, the struggle of immigrant communities, they need the presence of the church more than anybody. The presence is going to remain, but it's going to be consolidated," he said. "It's simply the way of the world here."
Camden, which has declined in population, used to be a mostly white, blue-collar industrial city, but that hasn't been the case for 50 years, said Palmo, noting a significant influx in recent years of Latinos from Puerto Rico and Mexico.
"The population base simply isn't there for" the six parishes, he said.
The Camden Diocese, which comprises the six southernmost counties of New Jersey and ministers to 450,000 Catholics in the region, will have 62 parishes after the mergers.
About a decade ago, during a process that spanned a few years, there was a massive reorganization in the Camden Diocese in which 134 parishes became 64. During that period, Bishop Joseph Gallante, Sullivan's predecessor, went to every parish to hear what people wanted, said Palmo.
Hallahan said during that reorganization, the number of parishes in Camden dropped from nine to six.
"Parish consolidation and mergers are standard fare for every archdiocese in the Northeast and the upper Midwest," said Palmo, reflecting population declines in those areas, low church attendance, and building maintenance costs.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which serves the city and its surrounding counties, had 264 parishes in 2011 and now has 216 parishes, in a consolidation process that is still ongoing, said Palmo.
The decisions behind the mergers in Camden came after an 18-person committee was formed in the fall of 2015 to determine what changes were needed. After reviewing the data and the concerns of the parishes, the representatives determined that the most effective option was to reduce the number of parishes through mergers, which would save on personnel, housing, and other assorted management costs, the diocese said.
Catholic schools in Camden are unaffected by the mergers, it said.
Hallahan was on the committee, as was Ben Hill, 63, of Pennsauken, a member of Sacred Heart for 40 years.
Hill, who is African American, said he doesn't think there will be any kind of cultural or racial conflicts with the merging of St. Josephine Bakhita into Sacred Heart. "Everybody has the same mission, to help the poor and … to provide for others," he said.
"Geographically, it works, and demographically, we think it's going to work out," he said of the merger.
Columnist Kevin Riordan contributed to this article.