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Keeping faith

Archdiocese hopes that by sharing priests, shrinking parishes can save their identities

The Rev. Richard Crowley serves Sacred Heart Church in Middleborough and also celebrates Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester (rear). The Rev. Richard Crowley serves Sacred Heart Church in Middleborough and also celebrates Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rochester (rear). (George Rizer for the Boston Globe)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / April 26, 2012
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While talk of closing more Catholic churches has died down, sweeping changes appear to be on the way.

Under a restructuring proposed for the Archdiocese of Boston, nearly every Catholic parish in the Massachusetts communities south of Boston would join one or more other parishes under the leadership of a single pastor.

Thus, St. Mary’s of the Sacred Heart in Hanover would partner with St. Helen in Norwell and St. Thecla in Pembroke. Or Holy Family in Rockland would team up with Holy Ghost in Whitman and St. Bridget’s in Abington. (See accompanying table.)

Archdiocese officials hope that such collaborations will allow all of its current 288 parishes to survive and attract new parishioners, reversing downward trends that most churches have suffered for years.

Under terms of the draft proposal, the conjoined parishes would form “pastoral service teams’’ - consisting of priests, deacons, lay ministers, and members of parish and finance councils - that would operate as a united administration led by one pastor. Each parish would remain open and maintain a separate identity.

Three of the larger parishes in this area - St. Agatha in Milton, St. Mary of the Nativity in Scituate, and St. Bonaventure in Plymouth - have not been assigned to any group and would continue to operate on their own.

The Archdiocese of Boston sees streamlining church management as an alternative to shuttering parishes. Since 1990, the archdiocese has closed 125 parishes, and officials see the curent system as unsustainable. Religious educators are retiring and not being replaced, many parishes are struggling to pay their bills, and there is a shortage of priests. Currently, the archdiocese has 346 priests available to work in parish ministry, and in 10 years that number is projected to drop to 180.

Church attendance has also fallen significantly. According to statistics from the Archdiocese of Boston, 70 percent of baptized Catholics attended Mass regularly in 1970. Today, 15.8 percent do.

“That’s why we have to do this, and do it expeditiously. . . . and we also have to do it carefully,’’ the Rev. Paul R. Soper said of the restructuring.

Soper is pastor of St. Albert the Great in Weymouth and a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission, the 20-member committee that came up with the proposal.

“It’s going to be a slow process,’’ said Soper. “We don’t want to rush anything.’’

Critics of the plan are concerned about having multiple parishes share a pastor. What if the workload is too much for one person? What happens if a financially strong parish is grouped with a poor parish; how would that work? When two or more parishes converge to share the same staff, will some lay employees get pushed out of their jobs?

One pastor who’s used to the concept of serving multiple parishes is the Rev. Richard P. Crowley, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Middleborough. In 2005, he began serving St. Rose of Lima in the neighboring town of Rochester.

The 75-year-old pastor travels back and forth regularly between Sacred Heart and St. Rose to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. Driving a white 2010 Ford Fusion, Crowley takes about 25 minutes to make the 14-mile commute between the two churches.

“It’s pretty much all country road; you can’t go that fast,’’ said Crowley.

Already, he has been hearing from parishioners in both towns: Why are you over there so much? Why aren’t you here more?

Under the proposed restructuring, his parish would partner with Saints Martha & Mary in Lakeville, which would essentially mean taking on a third parish. He most likely won’t have to deal with that, because he’s set to retire in June.

Crowley said that if the archdiocese moves forward with the plan, he hopes that the changes are implemented gradually.

“If they didn’t [do it gradually], it would be bedlam,’’ he said.

The Rev. Wally F. Keymont has been the pastor of St. John the Evangelist in East Bridgewater for eight years. His parish is supposed to form an alliance with St. Ann in West Bridgewater and St. Thomas Aquinas in Bridgewater.

Keymont doesn’t think this is a good idea, because St. John’s is already overcrowded and St. Thomas Aquinas is a large parish that serves Bridgewater State University and the prison.

“This combination will not work . . . we simply do not have the space to combine with another large parish without doing damage to the life of this parish as it now stands,’’ he wrote to the archdiocese in response to the plan, which he posted on his parish’s website.

Keymont says he would prefer to collaborate with St. Ann and leave the largest of the three - Saint Thomas Aquinas - alone, so it can continue to serve Bridgewater State University and the prison.

Playing match-maker between parishes is not easy.

Just ask Soper, who served on the commission that drew up the proposal.

“We already know we didn’t get them all right,’’ said Soper. Some parishes had been working together on their own already “and we didn’t necessarily know that.’’

The plan remains a work in progress and the configurations will be reorganized accordingly, according to Soper.

“Changes will be made,’’ he said.

That is one of the reasons church officials are seeking feedback from the Catholic community.

Since the proposal was unveiled in December, three rounds of consultations - and dozens upon dozens of meetings - have been held with priests, parish staffs, and pastoral and finance council members from parishes all across the archdiocese. They were polled and surveyed and asked to submit responses to “homework questions.’’ The survey results of those polls and other reports have been posted online at www.planning2012.com.

Pastors are still soliciting input from parishioners by holding meetings at their parishes. They are due to submit all the feedback to the archdiocese by next Tuesday, according to Soper.

“We’re hoping to have a better sense by May 1 where we stand,’’ said Soper.

After that, another meeting will be held with priests on June 7, and then the commission will take a step back and look at all the input from the past few months and figure out what issues need to be addressed and make changes as needed. Soper expects the final plan will be presented to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley sometime this summer.

Once the cardinal has the proposal, Soper said, it’s up to him to “promulgate it if he chooses’’ or “send it back to us and say, ‘Try again.’ ’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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