Closing or merging a parish is difficult for any community, no matter its ethnic or racial makeup. Like many other Catholics, the black faithful in the United States have felt the brunt of church closings over the past 20 years due to several factors that include changing demographics, fewer priests in residence, a decline in religious practice and deteriorating economic conditions in the old Catholic strongholds of the Northeast and Midwest.
But shuttering black Catholic parishes presents unique challenges for bishops to consider, given the centrality of those parishes in the lives of black Catholics as well as the Catholic Church’s mixed history in the United States toward the black faithful.
“Most of these consolidations have not affected black Catholics, but at the same time, when a black parish closes, I think it has a more deleterious effect on the black community than it does among white parishioners,” said Darren Davis, a political science professor at Notre Dame.
Davis co-authored a 2011 report, sponsored by Notre Dame and the National Black Catholic Congress, that offers several important insights into the spiritual needs of black Catholics.
The report found that more than 20 percent of respondents have experienced racism in the Church and that less than half of black Catholics in the United States are satisfied with how the Church promotes black bishops, emphasizes black saints, targets black vocations, promotes racial integration and supports issues like affirmative action.
“I think there are a variety of factors that lead to church closings, but the black parishioners may not support that view, and that is also because of what the Catholic Church has cultivated with black Catholics,” Davis told Our Sunday Visitor. “Basically, black Catholics may be more willing, given their historical treatment, to think in more negative terms of church closings.”
Over the last several years, many bishops and their diocesan consultants have often made painful decisions to close or merge predominantly black parishes. The more successful dioceses, while still encountering difficulties, were those that directly engaged the lay faithful and gave them a voice in the process.
“Involving the parishioners is critical. If you don’t bring them along in the process, then I just don’t think the process will have any validity and it will not succeed,” said Alton James, the Central Region coordinator of Parish Life and Services for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
As Detroit’s population has fallen, the number of parishes and Catholics in the city limits has also decreased, from 150 parishes and 300,000 registered Catholic families to 53 parishes and 20,000 registered Catholic families. During the same time, the suburban population around Detroit has grown from 1 million to about 3 million.
“By way of general demographic context, this means that the black Catholic population in the city has been part of the rapidly changing Church that has been in a constant transition from larger parish communities to smaller ones, while many of the white families who have or had roots at the churches in the city now live and belong to suburban parishes,” said Joe Kohn, director of public relations for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Lory McGlinnen, director of Parish Life and Services for the Archdiocese of Detroit, also told OSV that the archdiocese works closely with the lay faithful to examine the state of their parishes when discerning whether certain churches will be closed or merged with others.
“It’s not anything different whether it’s an African-American community, a Hispanic community, a Polish community, a long-term parish that maybe has evolved from being originally Irish or Polish,” McGlinnen told OSV in an interview.
History plays a part
In Philadelphia, the local black Catholic community has particularly felt the brunt of parish closings, said Deacon Bill Bradley, director of the Office for Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
“Over the last 20-some years, what you’ve found is for black folks, this sense that this keeps happening to us again and again,” Deacon Bradley said. “You have people who have moved from a closed parish to a new parish home, only to find that that parish is also closing, and in one particular case, finding again that that parish is closing, too.”
Deacon Bradley said Philadelphia previously had 23 predominantly black Catholic parishes, and that number is down to 12 or 13 today.
“People’s perceptions that their parish can remain open, should remain open, is rooted in what has happened to them rather than an understanding of, ‘This is the situation. We can’t have two or three parishes in the same area that can’t financially support themselves,’” Deacon Bradley said. “There is a sense of losing your Church home. That is where the dissatisfaction really comes in.”
David L. Gray, a Catholic convert and writer, told OSV that black Catholics such as himself “are very culpable in this tragedy, because they could have done a much better job over the past 50 years to evangelize the communities in which we are situated.”
Said Gray: “Rather, we tend to be boorish, cliquish, elitist and bourgeois. We don’t want the people in those lower income neighborhoods in our Church. We rather they remain Protestants. The reason why there aren’t more black Catholics is because of black Catholics.”
Role of the parish
Losing a parish home is especially painful in the black Catholic community because of the central role the Church plays in the lives of the faithful.
“The black parish and the priests who serve in the black parish provide a variety of different services that most African-Americans otherwise don’t have access to,” said Davis, who listed counseling and childcare among several support services those parishes offer.
“I’ve often argued outside schools, it is the church, the parish, that gives vibrancy to the community, particularly the black community,” Davis said. “It is very difficult, because of the racial dimension, for black parishioners who attended those parishes to just attend a different parish. There is a racial element there that is very meaningful.”
“Those parishes are places where black Catholics feel comfortable to raise their children, to have them receive the sacraments and embrace the Faith. You have to move to another (parish) and you ask, ‘Are you welcome?’ It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult,” said Donna Toliver Grimes, assistant director for the USCCB Subcommittee on African-American Affairs.
Grimes told OSV that the Catholic Church in the United States has generally ignored its history on race relations because it is an uncomfortable subject. She said open, honest dialogue can help heal wounds, make it easier for black Catholics when parishes have to be closed or merged, and open pathways for evangelization.
“You’re talking about breaking down barriers to evangelization,” Grimes said, “and that really means there has to be a focus and a recognition that the Catholic Church is broader than the Anglo English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parts of the Church.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.