A group of lay leaders are mounting what might be a last-ditch effort this fall to keep two Catholic churches open and active after a summer spent in weekly meetings and, for some, canvassing the neighborhood in an effort to fill more pews and increase collections.
The Collaborative of St. Ann-St. Brendan faces an uphill climb to reverse what has been a long-duration decline in weekly Mass attendance — and the attendant dip in revenue essential to paying parish bills.
The lay leadership— along with Rev. Bob Connors and Rev. Brian Cleary, the two priests now in charge of administering the parish – have planned a series of events in the coming days to engage the community and, they hope, advance their “option A” for the near-future: keeping both St. Ann and St. Brendan open.
An outdoor Mass will be celebrated this Sunday afternoon (Sept. 23) in Neponset II Park on Granite Avenue starting at 4 p.m. The service will be followed by a parish supper in the park.
In a follow-up, parishioners have been asked to attend a 7 p.m. meeting in St. Ann Church on Monday (Sept. 24) where, the parish leaders say, they will lay out the current status of the parish’s finances, membership, and related issues, including deferred maintenance costs, which has been estimated to be roughly $2 million between the two parishes.
A fundraiser that leaders hope will be a large one, is planned for Florian Hall on Sat., Nov. 24, as a way to help offset the deficit in paying for the parish’s operating expenses, which is estimated at $6,000 per church per week.
The parish’s problem is hardly unique to the churches of Neponset. Almost all parish congregations in Boston are running a deficit, according to Connors and Cleary. But the structural deficit, coupled with daunting deferred maintenance issues facing both churches, has prompted an acute response from the clergymen who took over as co-pastors earlier this year and rang the alarm in June with a detailed letter that outlined what they then described as a “critical” problem that “needs attention.”
More than 300 parishioners turned out for a meeting held at St. Brendan Church in June in which the pastors laid out worsening financial problems that they said could result in “tough decisions”— including deep cost-cutting measures and, perhaps, even potential closures.
Lay leaders met on Mondays throughout the summer to review financial records and identify what they call “five evaluative benchmarks” that will guide their response. In a Sept. 1 letter signed by 14 men and women who make up the parish leadership team— including members of the parish councils and finance committees— the group said its goal should be to “exhaust every option to keep the two parishes open and independent… no one wants to close a parish.”
In the letter, the group identified the five benchmarks as:
• A “significant increase in Mass attendance” to 600-700 weekly per church;
• Offertory collections amounting to $6,000 per week, per church;
• An increase in participating and volunteers, such as lectors and youth ministers;
• Paying back loans to the Archdiocese valued at over $850,000;
• “Addressing the deferred maintenance and repairs in both parishes,” estimated to be $1.5 million at St. Brendan and $500,000 at St. Ann.
“As of this letter, there has been some increase in benchmarks 1-3, but we are not yet meeting our goals as is needed to fulfill our current plans,” the group wrote. “Although our Plan A is to keep both parishes open, we do realize that a Plan B may be required, as unsure as we are as to what that may look like.”
In an interview with the Reporter this week, the co-pastors and members of the lay team outlined their belief that the summer organizing could help set the stage for a community-led effort to reverse the trends of low attendance and participation.
Larry Feeney, who sits on the St. Brendan finance council, said that Monday’s meeting will be a “real, solid, transparent update” for parishioners to understand “where we are. Right now,” he added, “we’ve been trying to establish exactly what these benchmarks are and make some decision about what we need to do going forward.”
The month of October looms as a key test as the archdiocese of Boston uses that month to conduct a census of Mass attendance.
“October will be a really telling month,” said Liz Angell, a St. Ann parishioner who has been active in the summertime leadership efforts. “If there is not an uptick, it will be really difficult moving forward.”
The group has seen encouraging signs that could help the cause. William Sansone, who sits on the parish council for St. Brendan, said he has noticed more people and families in the pews, even in the summertime, when there’s typically attrition due to travel and camps.
Stephanie O’Shea, who attends Mass at St. Ann, agrees that there’s been a boost in participation. “I think we are all seeing people who we haven’t seen in a while at Mass,” she said. “I think the community outcry has made it much more of a priority for people.” She added that there has been a “conscious choice” made by the two church communities to unite in an effort to help each other survive. “I’m a St. Ann person,”she said, “but I know there’s a lot of fear in St. Brendan’s, too. I think it’s been a smart move to make us work together on behalf of both parishes.”
A recent parent meeting held on Sunday at St. Brendan to discuss new “faith formation” policies for children and teens drew a large turnout, according to Angell. Among the new rules introduced will be a requirement that students in their sacramental year (for First Communion or Confirmation) must attend a minimum of 14 Sunday liturgies. In a bit of old-school enforcement, the students will need to not only show up to Mass, but also get a signature from the priest confirming the attendance.
Connors and Cleary admit that it’s, at least in part, a way to correct the dip in attendance. More to the point, they say, it’s intended to preserve the integrity of the sacraments and the priests and parents who partner to bring up young people as part of the faithful.
This more localized crisis— and attempts to correct it— are happening at a moment when the Catholic Church in the United States and, once again, in Boston, is under renewed scrutiny amid fresh revelations about priestly misconduct. “The crisis,” as both priests refer to it, is part of the larger convulsion that has triggered erosion in attendance and donors across the nation.
Next Wednesday (Sept. 26), both pastors will hold a 12-hour prayer vigil in St. Brendan church to which all parishioners are invited to pray, ask questions, or “vent.” Said Connors: “These are not easy times to be asking people to come back to church. It’s important that people know that we understand that.”
Feeney, who will help lead Monday’s meeting to brief the community, said that only a fully transparent process will give the parish a chance moving forward. “How we got here is complex and it’s generational. We don’t want spend too much time analyzing that. We need to acknowledge it and talk about it. But we also need to draw up plans and if they work, great. If they don’t, we need to draw up something else.”