SEATTLE — The Seattle Archdiocese is consolidating parishes in a sweeping plan that will affect virtually every Catholic Church community in Western Washington.
In Masses and vigils over the weekend from the Canada to Oregon borders, pastors announced the four-year plan to group two or more parishes together in “families” that will share one priest and one assistant priest. Some churches will likely close or be repurposed for uses such as early learning centers or homeless shelters. But how many buildings will do so — and what the family configurations will look like — is yet to be determined by a process the archdiocese says will involve its parishioners.
“We don’t expect it to be this top-down driven imposition of what these parish families will be,” said the Rev. Gary Lazzeroni, a Vancouver pastor coleading the planning effort. He acknowledged some parishioners saw previous consolidations just that way.
This plan is the latest and most wide-reaching attempt by the archdiocese to respond to an acute priest shortage and a continuing decline in Mass attendance — dropping 11% between just 2010 and 2019, to roughly 117,000. The problems have worsened over decades as the church worldwide grappled with changing religious practices, priest abuse scandals and controversies over attitudes toward women priests and same-sex marriage.
The archdiocese as a whole is financially solvent, with $16.5 million in cash and investments after accounting for debt in the 2021 fiscal year, according to its annual report. It recently bought a $2.4 million house for Archbishop Paul Etienne and is selling a residence used by his predecessors for $13.5 million, along with other real estate.
But roughly two-thirds of the archdiocese’s 136 parishes operate at a deficit, excluding income from rental properties and special gifts, its leaders say. The archdiocese has 80 priests to serve them all, not counting visiting priests from around the world. In 15 years, it expects to have only about 65.
Stretched too thin, “people have been exhausted for a very long period of time,” Lazzeroni said. “Now, there’s real hope that we’re going to do something that’s going to reinvigorate us.”
“This really is a new beginning,” he said.
“The purpose of this is a reenvisioning,” added Archdiocese Chief Operations Officer Caitlin Moulding, the plan’s other co-leader. “How do we go out to those who need our help more effectively? How do we enhance our faith formation? How do we bring young people back into the faith?”
Pooling resources will help answer those questions, she said.
It could also generate emotional turmoil. The archdiocese carried out mergers over the last several years from Everett to Tacoma. Three churches in Seattle closed (apart from occasional gatherings in at least one). For many, the sense of loss was profound, especially for people who grew up in a church, who planned to be buried there.
Some refused to accept what they felt were dictates by Etienne and his staff, with little recognition of what made their parishes unique and important to the communities they served. Several groups appealed church closings to the Vatican. Two of those appeals, from St. Mary in the Central District and St. Patrick in North Capitol Hill, are pending, according to the archdiocese.
Some parishioners from Our Lady of Mount Virgin in Mount Baker took to praying outside the church’s locked doors.
A parish that has already been through a wrenching merger will not likely be asked to merge again “without a compelling reason” voiced from within, Moulding said. “That community would need to tell us through this consultative process that something more makes sense for them.”
A consulting company, PartnersEdge, will come up with a first draft of family configurations by March. A group of priests from across the archdiocese, called the Presbyteral Council, and an oversight committee of religious and lay leaders formed for this process will then make revisions and pass on a new draft to priests and archdiocese staff for their input.
Everyday parishioners will get their first look at a draft in the fall, and will then have an opportunity to weigh in, partly though an online form.
“Cincinnati did this and they received 7,000-plus comments, and they made changes,” Moulding said. “We fully expect to make changes every step of the way.”
After discussions with the oversight committee, the Presbyteral Council will make a recommendation on configurations to the archbishop, who will declare his verdict in early 2024, with a three-year implementation period beginning in the summer of that year.
During that time, the enjoined parishes can together decide how to use their resources. One parish family might choose to keep all its churches and hold Masses in each one at different times, Lazzeroni said. Another might sell a church and use the money to expand its social justice ministry.
“We don’t have a preconceived notion of what that outcome is going to be,” the archbishop says in a video played at churches over the weekend and posted to the archdiocese’s website.
Roughly 900 priests and parish representatives got a prebriefing on the consolidation plan last week at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. Rosa Luna, a 34-year-old parishioner and youth choir leader at St. Pius X church in Mountlake Terrace, was one of them.
“When you first hear it, it hits you like a ton of bricks,” she said. “And it hurts.”
So much work has gone into building up the church, and it has paid off, she continued. Unlike many churches, she said hers, with nearly 2,000 registered households, is growing, in large part due to a vibrant Spanish-language Mass. Looking for extra space, parishioners often gather in homes for choir practice and ministry meetings.
It’s hard to think about changing a good thing, Luna said. But after the initial shock, she said, it made sense to her, struck by the number of churches running a deficit.
The status quo is just not working, she said. “I hope this is like a wake-up call.”
The restructuring is a risk, allowed the Rev. Jose Alvarez of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in White Center. Some people will likely push back and may even stop coming to church. But he predicted the majority of his several thousand parishioners will accept the changes if he clearly lays out the reasons for them.
He plans to hold several meetings in the days ahead to get their initial feedback.
At Laurelhurst’s St. Bridget Catholic Church, a 1970s building featuring stained-glass windows designed with swirling, earth-toned shapes, the Rev. William Heric took the long view as he prepared for a 9:30 a.m. Mass.
The oldest of seven children, Heric, 67, said he grew up in a time when big Catholic families were the norm. They all went to church and the kids went to Catholic school.
That is no longer the case, not least because, he said, “we’ve lost much of the younger generation.”
Still, Heric, the leader or “dean” of the North Seattle region of the archdiocese, said the church’s history has been marked by constant change.
During Mass, as he introduced the archdiocese’s video announcing the plan for parish families, he harkened back to Jesus’ crucifixion. “From the very worst, God can bring forth the very best,” he said.
Longtime parishioners said they were not surprised. St. Bridget and nearby Assumption, both claiming about 650 households, had in the past talked about becoming sister parishes and already share a school.
St. Bridget also sends children to programs run by a youth minister at another nearby church because it lacks such a staff member. “We can’t afford to hire one,” said Mary Kay Beeby, head of the parish’s finance committee. Four employees work at the parish, she said, about half the number in years past.
Beeby, 74, said she felt good about the new plan. Unlike past efforts, she said this one “doesn’t feel forced at all. … It feels like a process we will figure out together.”
Jackie Mills and Bryce Bacic, 26 and 29, recently started attending church again as they prepare for their wedding. They said they were excited about a plan they thought had the potential to attract more young people because it would create larger, more vibrant communities.
But as some processed the news, they had questions. “I’m just curious and a little nervous,” Sarah Christie said. “What are they going to do with the physical buildings?”
She and her husband, Mike Christie, noted their children, including a 7-year-old son happily playing foosball after Mass in a big side room where coffee was served, loved coming to St. Bridget. Changing to a new location would be nerve-wracking, she said.
Such discussions, arguably the hardest past of this process, are yet to come.