Twin Cities Catholics to close 21 churches

St. Andrew's parishioners
Parishioners of St. Andrew's Catholic Church in St. Paul look over the strategic plan, handed out at Saturday evening mass, which calls for their parish to merge with another, the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Archdiocese of St. Paul Minneapolis announced plans Saturday to close 21 Catholic churches in the Twin Cities metro area, with several dozen more to share priests, some staff and services.

The changes are needed to help the archdiocese, which serves about 800,000 Catholics across 12 counties, deal with fewer Catholic priests, shrinking church attendance and the aging of those Catholics that remain, and geographical shifts of churchgoing populations, church officials said.

Five churches will close in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and their congregations will be absorbed by others. Churches are also slated to close in St. Louis Park, South St. Paul, New Prague, Hugo and several smaller communities. A list of the affected churches is available here.

"I don't think anyone can respond with anything but sadness," said DeAnn Croatt, a parish council member at St. Benedict in rural New Prague, which will have its congregation folded into St. Wenceslaus inside New Prague's city limits.

Croatt and her husband have attended St. Benedict since 1978. She said parishioners at the church that dates to the 19th Century had not received official word Saturday morning but expected to hear details of the closure at Saturday night Mass. She said that made it too early to speculate whether parishioners might pursue an appeals process established by the archdiocese.

St. Benedict has been without a pastor since its elderly priest died last January, Croatt said. It also has already been sharing resources with other Catholic churches in the area.

In the 1950s, about 75 percent of Catholics attended church most weekends. Today, the national average is closer to 30 percent. The number of new priests has shrunk as well, and while archdiocesan officials say their recruitment numbers have stabilized in recent years, they still expect the archdiocese to have 19 fewer priests in 2020 than it does now.

In one small area of northeast Minneapolis, three churches will be closed with their congregations to be absorbed by a fourth church.

The pastor at one of the churches to close, the Rev. Earl Simonson of St. Clement, had said earlier in the week that closure wouldn't surprise him - his congregation has been aging and shrinking for decades, and the busiest weekend Mass is now lucky to draw 100 people in a building that seats 300.

"The Church is not primarily about buildings," Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote in an introduction to the archdiocesan plan. "It is about people and relationships fostered in and through Christ."

It wasn't clear Saturday how soon churches listed for closure would actually shut down; those sharing pastors won't do so until at least June 2011, according to the archdiocese's plan.

The archdiocese has worked on the reorganization plan for the past year and a half. It says the proceess is necessary, in part, because of financial hardships at some of its parishes. More than 25 percent of its parishes have serious debt and budget issues.

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
This graphic gives a quick glance at the 12-county area that makes up the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

The reorganization comes even as the archdiocese projects a 7.5 percent increase in the number of households registered with parishes over the next five years.

But that growth is unevenly distributed, with most of it occurring in exurban areas -- outside of the core metro area.

Nearly all of that growth is fueled by immigration, according to the archdiocese, which adds that a significant number of Latinos live within a five-minute drive of every parish. The biggest changes are expected in parishes that are located in the core cities.

Officials said some of the 98 Catholic grade schools in the archdiocese could be closed, too, but those decisions will be left to parish councils and won't be made until the end of the current school year.