Thursday, March 4, 2010

Who Is Destroying Cleveland’s Catholic Churches?

Cleveland’s Catholic Diocese is dying a slow and painful death, and as a result, many churches in the Cleveland metropolitan area are being closed. If you listen to my mother, she thinks I am personally to blame, because I don’t go to church anymore. My argument is that the Catholic parish in my city (which has been spared from the chopping block) is growing and thriving without me, so I know it’s not just because of me.

The problem with the Cleveland Catholic Diocese is caused by more than one thing. Many people aren’t as disciplined about going to church any more, and that in itself has multiple causes. Most adults have to work, and spending time every Sunday at Mass can be a drain if you spend all a lot of energy on the job during the week, and you have to play catch up with everything else over the weekend. When I was growing up, most families had a stay at home mom, who took care of the kids and other things during the week, so spending time for church on Sunday wasn’t an issue. There are also many people like me who were raised Catholic but have long since lost the need for the structure and ritual of the church to remind them how to behave.

St. Procops, Cleveland Ohio West Side (Now closed)

In Cleveland, however, the issue is compounded by many Clevelanders fleeing to the suburbs in droves, something that started in the early 1960s and continued at a faster rate each year. Anyone who could afford to get out of the inner city got out, and over time, this left many churches without sustainable parishes. But this is not a new problem.

Everyone understands these factors, and everyone understands that a parish and church building cannot be financially sustained without money from parishioners. And this is where the Cleveland Catholic Diocese took a left turn. Rather than close churches as they became financially unstable over a period of several years, they allowed many to stay open. Bring in a new Bishop - Richard Lennon – who appears to be the designated hatchet man - to cut loose those parishes that cannot sustain themselves in one fell swoop.

Bishop Lennon, however, completely botched the execution of his church consolidation plan. He established “clusters” of parishes - usually parishes within close proximity - and had representatives from each church in each cluster put their heads together to decide which churches in their group stayed open, and which ones had to close. It sounds very nice on paper – you know, letting the people decide their own fate. Things were tough but seemed to be working out OK as each parish submitted their recommendations. The problem arose when Bishop Lennon ignored virtually every recommendation and closed very popular parishes, some which were not even losing any money, and some which also provided services to the community such as housing for the homeless and/or food for those who needed it. Adding insult to injury, some of the churches being closed by Bishop Lennon were some of the finest churches in the area, with not only stunning structures, but some of the finest religious art work and artifacts in the area. Many of those things are up for auction on an Internet web site, causing outrage with parishioners whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents paid for those things out of their own donations to the church, in some case going back over 100 years, and when money was very tight. There is doubt that any of that money from the sale of those objects or even the church buildings themselves will be returned to the churches in the new communities, and many worry that it is a simple money grab by the diocese and the Vatican. Needless to say, Bishop Lennon has shown zero respect for not only the current parishioners, but for those people whose families worked hard to make those churches possible.

St. Casimir's, Cleveland Ohio (Now closed)

Local Catholics have protested in many ways, some making very vocal protests at church closings and also picketing churches. A group was formed called Endangered Catholics whose intent is to get justice and equal opportunity for parishioners. Protests are also working their way up to the Vatican. Sadly, I suspect that these protests will fall on deaf ears for the most part, although Bishop Lennon did reverse his decision for one parish. In some cases, Bishop Lennon’s competency has been questioned. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has devoted a lot of coverage to the issue and many, if not all, of the articles paint Bishop Lennon and the diocese in a poor light.

Even though I am not a church-goer, it does sadden me to see both the church in which I was baptized and the church in which I was married close. The church where I was baptized is also the church where my parents were married and also the church where my grandparents were married. The building did need a little repair, but the structure is sound and very well kept for the most part, and the parish was not losing money. This church also supported the poor in the neighborhood with a place to live as needed and meals for those who could not afford food. It is a huge loss for the neighborhood community.

When it all comes down to it, everyone knows these churches are just buildings. But, the diocese seems to have lost any concern for the parishioners who have kept many of these facilities afloat, the Bishop completely ignoring their recommendations. It is also clear that the diocese does not have enough priests to cover each parish, a problem easily solved if they would only discard their narrow-minded opinions about women becoming priests. While Bishop Lennon is driving the stake into the heart of the parishioners, it’s the Catholic Church and its dated practices that are driving people away. I have hopes that one day, the Church will have leadership at all levels who are willing to question the status quo and to have the courage to make changes, otherwise what is happening to the Cleveland Catholic Diocese will continue to spread throughout the faith like a malignant cancer, and more cities will see their beloved churches, and the history that goes along with them, die a certain death.

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Anonymous said...

Love the church but its decision to stay "undeveloped" makes me wince. We stayed too territorial too long and church leaders should have "led" us to embrace differences among us.

We could have enough ministers to staff churches if spiritual needs were more important than who gets to have the power.

The Catholic Church is just circling in a cove while God is wondering when the leaders will stop looking at their boat long enough to realize people need to be tended to.

Anonymous said...

Cleveland is essentially a "gutted city" right now, and the old time business owners in machine tools/machine jobs did it because of their lust for outrageous profits and for now plowing money back into R&D and investing in new machinery. Thus, they themselves helped open the doors wide for off shore manufacturing (our Federal government didn't help things either). Thus you have gutted neighborhoods with boarded up buildings in some of the places where those beautiful old Catholic Churches stand. You also have a dying old Catholic Church population there and a "run from the city" mentality by these people's offsprings. I can't take a stance of wholesale condemnation on Bishop Lennon, as I never saw his "marching orders," nor did anyone else. He has a very unpopular job, in a very unpopular place.

The Frequent Critic said...

Gary, I know two of the churches were not in "gutted" areas. Some were not even in the city proper but in the suburbs, which had thriving church populations. The churches that were allowed to re-open because it was determined by The Vatican that Lennon had erred in his decisions are still doing well - including the church in which I was married. It was a great victory for those who protested Lennon's actions that The Vatican ruled that his judgement was in error - for whatever reason. As The Church is traditionally very secretive, we'll probably never know the real story behind Lennon's actions and the Vatican reversal, but clearly someone made a big error here.