Four Corners | Midwest: Adapting to ‘significant changes’

This is the third part of Our Sunday Visitor’s “Four Corners” series, which is examining Catholicism throughout the different regions of the United States. Part 1 on the Northeast ran in the Feb. 21 issue; Part 2 on the South ran in the May 22 issue. Both can be found online at

While statistics show the Midwest is less Catholic than it used to be, leaders in dioceses across the 12 states making up the region are looking to balance the needs of the faithful with the realities of the times.

The descendants of the German, Polish, Irish, Hungarian, Czech and other European Catholic immigrants who settled into the region during the 19th and 20th centuries and built their own ethnic parishes are following career opportunities and building new communities in the West and Sun Belt. The practicing Catholics who remain in the region tend to be older and fewer in numbers, while young millennial Catholics in the Midwest are less likely to attend Sunday Mass, participate in parish life or contribute to the collection plate.

However, the increasing population of Hispanic Catholics has invigorated many local churches, helping to balance out the decline of people in the pews.

But those socio-economic and demographic trends are forcing Catholic bishops from Ohio to the Dakotas to make tough decisions about what to do with once-vibrant ethnic urban parishes that today struggle to fill their pews on any given Sunday.

Catholic bishops in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Des Moines and Milwaukee are dealing with a similar set of problems. Many of them are now leading their dioceses to take long, hard looks at themselves to figure out what their local churches will look like in the near future.

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According to Mark Gray, a senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, some of the challenges facing Midwestern bishops may be “bigger than the Church.”

“There is not a lot the Church can do to revitalize parishes when the Catholic population just isn’t there anymore,” Gray told Our Sunday Visitor.

Slower population growth

Historically, the Midwest and Northeast were the country’s Catholic strongholds as European immigrants flocked to those regions’ industrial and agricultural centers.

But beginning in the 1980s, the automotive plants and factories in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana began shutting down and relocating to the South or to other countries. Many Catholics in the so-called Rust Belt states of the Midwest began losing their jobs and were faced with difficult decisions of staying home or following jobs to other parts of the country.

“The manufacturing left, and the agriculture that remained went from being small farms to large-scale, corporate farms. It’s just a different economic reality there,” Gray said.

The Rise (and necessity) of parish life coordinators
A new model of parish leadership is emerging in the Midwest.

“Both of those sectors have been hit, and we have seen population losses and migration out of the urban areas into the suburbs. In many cases, the people just aren’t there anymore. They’ve relocated to other parts of the country.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the population of the Midwest in 2015 was just under 68 million people. The region’s population has only grown about 5 percent from the 2000 census, whereas the South and West have each grown by around 20 percent in that same time period.

According to CARA, today, only about 22 percent of Catholics in the United States live in the Midwest, but the region still has 37 percent of the country’s Catholic parishes. That kind of imbalance inevitably leads to a lot of empty churches.

“These churches were real gems in the neighborhoods. So what do you do with these big beautiful majestic temples of God that need repairs when you have a congregation of maybe 200 people on a Sunday and a collection of maybe $300 or $400?” said Father Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Father Avella, who has studied the Midwest’s demographic shifts, said he gives a lot of credit to bishops trying to figure out what to do with struggling parishes when they are already dealing with other factors that include a declining number of available priests and dwindling financial resources.

“This can be a very delicate process, depending on how it’s done,” Father Avella said. “You just don’t go in and shut down a parish and tell everyone that their church is closing at the end of the month so they’ll have to go somewhere else. That will creative a negative reaction. But on the other hand, decisions have to be made. Something has to give, because we just don’t have the people.”

People around Fatima statue
Visitors admire a statue of Our Lady of Fatima at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Riverview, Mich. CNS photo by Dan Meloy, The Michigan Catholic

Plans for restructuring

Over the last 20 to 30 years, several bishops in the Midwest, often after study and consultation with diocesan officials, pastors and lay leaders, have ordered scores of struggling parishes to be closed or merged with others.

In 1989, Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, the late archbishop of Detroit, began implementing a plan to close 30 parishes in the Motor City. Four years ago, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron announced a second round of parish closings and mergings amid declining church membership and available clergy.

In his February 2012 pastoral letter outlining the archdiocesan reorganizational program, known as “Together in Faith,” Archbishop Vigneron said the Church in southeast Michigan was facing an “unprecedented set of challenges” that included the abandonment of Sunday Mass by many Catholics, a sharp decline in the number of priests, the secularizing culture, and the region’s dramatic economic and demographic changes.

“The life of the Church here in the Archdiocese of Detroit cannot simply continue without significant changes,” Archbishop Vigneron wrote.

Similar scenarios have played out — or currently are playing out — in Indianapolis, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Toledo and Fargo, among others, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, the nation’s third largest Catholic archdiocese. There, Archbishop Blase J. Cupich is overseeing an ambitious pastoral reorganization initiative — known as “Renew My Church” — that local media outlets report could lead to as many as 100 parishes being closed over the next dozen years.

In his archdiocesan newspaper column, Archbishop Cupich wrote that the region’s demographics have shifted dramatically, leading some parishes to fall into disrepair. And with fewer priests to pastor faith communities, the archdiocese has to stop spreading its resources too thinly.

“I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that by the time this consultative process is complete, we will mourn together the loss of some parishes,” Archbishop Cupich wrote.

Betsy Bohlen
Betsy Bohlen

Betsy Bohlen, the chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told OSV that the next three to four years will be a time of intense planning and discussion as parish leaders across the archdiocese gather together in groups to help the archbishop make decisions about different configurations and parish models. Over the next 10 years, Bohlen said, the archdiocese will begin reconfiguring parishes, closing some, merging others or having single parishes sharing multiple worship sites.

“The focus of this effort is creating strong, vibrant parishes that evangelize the community and help form strong, faithful Catholics,” said Bohlen, who added that in more prosperous times, the archdiocese probably had too much infrastructure than what was necessary.

Bygone age’s infrastructure

Bohlen said that as immigrants settled in the city, the parishes were “very ethnically based. They would often build their churches almost on top of each other.”

Father Ed Fialkowski, pastor of Our Lady of the Wayside Church in Arlington Heights, located in the Archdiocese of Chicago, echoed that sentiment.

“The churches used to be cultural center for the ethnic communities. But all that is different today. There is not the same sense of obligation, and people don’t contribute the way they used to,” he said of the decline in Mass attendance.

In many urban pockets throughout the Midwest, ethnic Catholic immigrants built their own personal parishes, often within a short walking distance of one another. In Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood, for example, there were once seven churches within two square miles. Most of those churches were Polish, with each parish comprised of Catholics from different regions of Poland.

“Those churches were once thriving, but that’s obviously not the case anymore. A number of those churches have been closed or merged,” said Father Donald P. Oleksiak, the moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Cleveland.

According to The Official Catholic Directory, the Diocese of Cleveland had 233 parishes in 2005. Today, the diocese has 185 parishes serving just under 700,000 Catholics. The local Catholic population has decreased by 143,000 people since 1995. According to CARA projections, the region’s Catholic population will fall to 455,000 people in 2040.

“Our system was built and designed for just shy of a million Catholics. We’re still operating that system, but we need to adjust it to accommodate fewer people,” Father Oleksiak said, adding that the diocese in the future will be looking at resource-sharing between parishes. He added that priests, instead of living individually in rectories, may one day be living together in shared regional housing instead.

Father Oleksiak also told OSV that people oftentimes focus too much on the narrative that the Church is shrinking in the region.

“Last Sunday, we had 170,000 people attending Catholic worship,” Father Oleksiak said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

Teacher and student
Sister Joyce Schramm instructs a student in English as a second language in Missouri. CNS photo by Sid Hastings, St. Louis Review

Immigrant waves

While groups of specific ethnicities that once built and populated urban parishes in many cases have dispersed, their pews are now being filled with another group that has recently emigrated to the United States.

“We’re seeing a reconfiguration of the demographics, and that is creating a new dynamic,” said Father Avella of Marquette University.

“We’re talking about an explosive growth in the Hispanic community. Chicago has a huge Mexican-American population, and the same thing with the south side of Milwaukee, where you’re seeing Latino Catholics moving into former Polish neighborhoods.”

According to the 2010 census, the Hispanic population in the Midwest grew by 49 percent, which was more than 12 times the growth of the total population in the region.

In the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Spanish-speaking migrants have moved into the area to work in the packing plants and dairy farms. The 2010 census estimated Green Bay’s Hispanic population at 14 percent, which doubled from 2000.

“And we know those are undercounted numbers. In the public school system, they report one out of four families are Spanish-speaking,” said Mark Mogilka, director of the Department of Stewardship & Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Green Bay.

In the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, about half of the total Catholic population there is now of Hispanic descent, said Victoria Cessna, the diocesan executive director of communications and public relations. In addition to about 40,000 Hispanic Catholic residents, another 20,000 Hispanic migrant farm workers come to work in the diocese from March through November.

“There is a lot of vibrancy in the Church, and there is a lot we can learn, too, from the family unit that I see in the Hispanic-Latino culture. They’re very family oriented,” said Cessna, adding that the diocese hasn’t had to close any parishes in several years.

Parishes that go forth

The Archdiocese of St. Louis, long referred to as the “Rome of the West,” closed and consolidated 20 parishes about 10 years ago.

John Schwob
John Schwob

John Schwob, the director of pastoral planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said the archdiocese initiated studies and sought parishioner input. People who participated in the process generally agreed that the archdiocese needed to close or merge parishes, but Schwob said individuals often balked when their own parishes were considered for closings.

“We spent 150 years or more in this country telling people that their spiritual and social lives began and ended with their parishes,” Schwob said. “Now we’re asking people to look beyond their parish to a church that’s larger and beyond their parish boundaries. That’s hard to do.”

Across the Midwest, Catholic bishops and their advisers, in their pastoral planning and reorganizational efforts, are trying to shift the Catholic community’s focus away from maintaining crumbling infrastructure to an outlook centered on the New Evangelization and the need to identify with a Catholic Church that transcends parish boundaries.

“There are demographic changes bigger than just what’s happening with Catholic Mass attendance. That’s true,” said Bohlen, the chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “But the question facing us is how do we think about our model in those communities? Instead of depending on Catholics formed in the Faith from birth, how do we think about going out to evangelize those communities in a way that might not be natural to many people?”

Bohlen said people often ask what the driving factors are behind the archdiocese’s “Renew My Church” initiative.

“They ask, ‘Is it the priest shortage? Is it financial troubles?’ Our ultimate goal is centered around parish vitality,” Bohlen said.

“We have a significant amount of parishes that have so few people because of the demographic changes that they spend all their time, the pastor included, trying to maintain a building and focused on administrative issues so that they have a hard time offering vital ministries.”

In Green Bay, Mogilka said diocesan leaders have embraced the call of Pope Francis to be a Church not of maintenance and survival but one that is called to be about the business of the New Evangelization. Mogilka said the diocese is having curial officials and parish leaders going through an intense process of renewal that includes seminars, retreats and small-group exercises.

“We have to help Catholics move from being cultural Catholics to intentional Catholics, from Catholics who fill the pews and meet their obligations to Catholics who live a life of discipleship and live a life of faith,” Mogilka said.

Young adult vitality

There are already some signs of hope and renewal. Gray, from CARA, noted that the region still has thriving Catholic colleges.

He noted that Steubenville, Ohio — a Rust Belt city that has struggled economically since the steel industry began to wane in the 1980s — has a very vibrant Catholic culture. The home of Franciscan University, Steubenville has generated a considerable amount of priestly vocations.

“There are still very Catholic places and historic institutions that are still very vibrant,” Gray said.

Diocesan officials throughout the region report that young adults, many of them married with families and devoted to their Catholic faith, are taking on leadership roles in their parishes and ministries.

“There are a lot of great things happening. The Church is alive and vibrant, but there are also a lot of places that are just maintaining, and we need to figure out how to give them a shot in the arm,” said Father Oleksiak from Cleveland.

Many dioceses, notably Cleveland and St. Louis, still operate large, successful Catholic school systems.

“We educate more kids in Catholic schools than most other dioceses in the country. We’re the 40th largest diocese and we have the eighth-largest number of kids in Catholic schools,” Schwob said.

Meanwhile, more than 400 young Catholic professionals in Chicago have been turning out for networking and social events in the Windy City.

“You do see today very strong leadership and very strong ministries in parishes,” said Bohlen.

Too often in the Midwest, Mogilka said, people view the region through a glass-is-half-empty lens that ignores the big picture.

“We still have over 100,000 people every weekend who gather around the table of the Lord and break and share bread together,” he said. “No denomination in the Midwest comes close to those numbers. Let’s celebrate the incredible gifts we have.”

Schwob said the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ “beONE” initiative is also trying to get the local Catholic community to think beyond parish boundaries, to look at broader Catholic life and look for ways to evangelize, to develop leaders for the New Evangelization and care for the less fortunate in society.

“We’ve come to realize that the most important thing we need to be doing is evangelization,” Schwob said. “If we can effectively reach out to ex-Catholics and Catholics who are not engaged in the Church, a lot of our problems will take care of themselves.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.