Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will merge a dozen parishes into five by July 1, resulting in seven closures in neighborhoods dense with Roman Catholic churches.
The targeted congregations, whose pastors announced their fates during Masses on Sunday, are in Manayunk and Germantown in the city and Coatesville in Chester County.
The moves constitute only the first round in a process that Chaput had earlier warned the area's 1.5 million Catholics would be "painful." Additional mergers are expected to be announced by summer and through 2014, as all 267 parishes in the five-county archdiocese are reviewed with an eye toward long-term restructuring.
The parishes marked for closing have had sharp declines in membership, Mass attendance, and baptisms, among other signs of diminished vitality, according to the archdiocese.
The archdiocese also foresees a steep drop in its priest supply due to retirements and deaths, and a year ago it placed 27 priests on administrative leave while it investigated allegations of improper behavior with minors.
"Change is rarely easy," Chaput said in a statement Sunday that addressed the parish closings. "But we do need to take these steps to help every parish more effectively promote the gospel and strengthen the future of our Catholic life together."
In Coatesville, Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Cecilia parishes will merge into Our Lady of the Rosary. St. Joseph and St. Stanislaus Kostka will merge into St. Joseph's.
In Germantown, St. Francis of Assisi, Immaculate Conception, and St. Vincent de Paul will merge into St. Vincent's. Four other parishes in Germantown and Mount Airy will begin self-study in September.
In Manayunk, St. Lucy and Holy Family will merge into Holy Family. St. John the Baptist, St. Josaphat, and St. Mary of the Assumption will merge into St. John's.
The archdiocese also decided that St. Athanasius and St. Raymond of Penafort in West Oak Lane/East Mount Airy would remain free-standing parishes.
Possible mergers involving the three parishes in Phoenixville are still under study, with a decision to be announced in several months.
The Rev. Charles Zlock's announcement at Sunday's 10 a.m. Mass that St. Mary of the Assumption would dissolve into St. John the Baptist was met with a gasp from 78-year-old Eleanor Schommer, a member since she was married there 53 years ago.
"I knew it was coming, but I didn't know it happened," she said tearfully as the Mass was ending. "I prayed to keep it open."
The church, founded as an ethnic German parish in 1849, will retain the 14 stations of the cross around its sanctuary with their original inscriptions. Veronika reicht Jesus des Schweisstuch reads one. About 150 parishioners were gathered for the morning Mass.
Outside, on steep, narrow Conarroe Street, there were more tears, some anger, and shrugs of resignation.
"I don't know where I'm going" next, said Carl Hood, who recalled with bitterness the words of a nun who tried to reassure him a few weeks ago that the church was "only a building."
"It's not a building; it's a family," said Hood, a member of St. Mary's for 40 years. He said he expected to be treated as a "stepchild" at the next parish he and his wife join.
Several parishioners were emphatic that they would not join St. John's, whose brownstone steeple towers above the hillside community, because its parishioners had "looked down" on Catholics from the other Manayunk parishes when they were young.
"We'll be second class," said an usher who did not give his name. "And besides, they've got no parking."
In the late 1990s, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua initiated a review process known as "cluster planning," in which all of the parishes of the archdiocese were asked to study their own viability and that of neighboring parishes and make recommendations about which should be closed.
Bevilacqua closed or merged about a dozen parishes, but in many cases he abided by the wishes of anguished parishioners to keep their small churches open.
Robert Miller, director of the archdiocese's office of research and planning, said in a recent interview about 30 priests wound up administering two or even three "twinned" parishes. (Zlock, for example, is also pastor of St. Lucy's, founded in 1927 as an Italian parish, also in Manayunk.)
This time, Miller said, archdiocesan officials "expect to be giving [the closings and mergers] more direction."
"Large parishes provide a critical mass of resources - especially people," said Miller, who also helped guide the "cluster planning" effort a dozen years ago.
The current archdiocese review - called the "parish planning initiative" - was launched in late 2010 by Chaput's predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who retired in September.
Last year, as part of a pilot project, the parishes whose mergers were announced Sunday were grouped by proximity into five small groups, or "parish pastoral planning areas." In each, priests and parish lay leaders were asked to assess the health of the churches and the needs of the local Catholic community.
"These [parishes] were not picked randomly," said Msgr. Arthur Rodgers, head of the archdiocese's new strategic planning committee. Instead, they were identified by clergy as struggling because of a glut of nearby churches, or because they no longer served the ethnic group for which they were established many decades ago.
The five churches in Manayunk - all within earshot of one another's bells - are a "blatant manifestation" of unneeded parishes, Rodgers said in a recent interview. "One had just one baptism last year."
After months of self-study, each of the five groups in the pilot project recommended to the committee - comprising archdiocesan personnel and the four auxiliary bishops - which parishes should survive or close.
"It's a fairly demanding process," Miller said. "But what will come out of it will be the church of the 21st century."
In anticipation of the emotions he knew would greet Sunday's announcement, Zlock has already scheduled a "day of mourning" on Saturday at St. Mary's and a similar event at St. Lucy's on Sunday.
Each of the parishes of the archdiocese now belongs to one of 44 parish planning areas. All will be asked in the months ahead to "examine their viability and assess whether they possess the resources . . . to remain sustainable and vibrant faith communities."
Rodgers, who also serves as pastor of the archdiocesan cathedral, said in a recent interview the criteria the archdiocese uses to assess parish viability include membership, Sunday Mass attendance, participation in the sacraments and religious education programs, population projections, parish finances, and the physical state of buildings.