The Archdiocese of Chicago has placed Forest Park’s St. Bernardine Catholic Church in a so-called “grouping,” with two other River Forest Catholic parishes and four more in Oak Park. 

St. Bernardine’s pastor, Fr. Stanislaw Kuca, said the initiative, called “Renew My Church,” is designed to give parishes in each grouping an opportunity to build relationships, support one other and collaborate on programing as mass attendance and church membership continues  to fall. In 2006, Fr. Kuca said, St. Bernardine’s average attendance for four masses was around 650. In 2016, with one less mass per week, that number was around 350. The placement was first announced in January in a letter from Cardinal Blasé J. Cupich. 

“Within a grouping, parishes will come together to gather information and evaluate options for the pastoral needs of all in the grouping,” Anne Maselli, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, wrote in a July 24 email to the Forest Park Review. “The goal is to build a renewed, vital, and sustainable Catholic presence for the good of all people in the collective communities within the grouping.”

Fr. Kuca said that while the clustering of the seven parishes makes geographic sense, it is really too large to effectively implement the program’s goals. So, this fall the staffs of the seven parishes will meet to form two subgroups.  He added that St. Bernardine already collaborates with other parishes in the area by sharing retreats, services, and the sacraments of confirmation and reconciliation. 

Fr. James Hurlbert, the pastor of Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park acknowledged that declining church membership and Mass attendance was in part was the impetus for the groupings.  Ascension is part of the same grouping as St. Bernardine. 

“A Sunday Mass in a church that is less than half full hardly feels vital.  In many communities it is simply unrealistic to imagine that parishioners will ever be able to finance needed physical plant and capital improvements,” Hurlbert said. “Even trying to maintain each stand-alone parish as a ‘full service’ parish does not make sense from the standpoint of economies of scale.”  

But, he added, instead of “wringing our hands” about the situation, the focus is on “vitality.”  

Four lay members of St. Bernardine all said because the initiative is fairly new, they haven’t seen much day-to-day difference yet. But all four said that “Renew My Church” made sense. 

 “I have not noticed that the consolidation has had much effect except that the pastor and associate pastor of St. Luke’s have preached the Mission at St. Bernardine the past two years,” Jim Murray, a St. Bernardine’s parishioner, said. “I believe most people think some kind of consolidation is necessary and will become more necessary as time goes by.” 

“I don’t see the Grouping as a negative,” Lin Beribak, another St. Bernardine parishioner, said. “It could offer more experiences and opportunities for faith-enhancement.”

For, Julie Doloszycki, the chairperson of St. Bernardine’s parish council, the groupings are a chance for each parish to “piggyback” on the strengths of the other congregations.  

“Every parish can’t have everything,” Doloszycki said. “…People have so many struggles and the Church needs to be there to minister, but there aren’t enough volunteers and staff in each parish to do everything. The grouping is going to make a better Catholic Church with a capital ‘C.”

Another parishioner, Tom Reich, was cautiously realistic about the change.  

“Consolidating and closing churches is necessary considering the lack of attendance at some churches,” he said, “It would be a big cost savings and fill up the churches instead of going to half empty churches.”

Doloszycki serves on the Archdiocesan Parish Council Consultative Group which meets with the cardinal every two to three months.  

“There have been some rumors that we are going to close,” she said. “The cardinal said that when you hear things like that, squelch them immediately. There is no talk about that whatsoever.”

Still, St. Bernardine members have seen their school as well as others in the area closed and can’t help but believe that some kind of merging will happen. 

“I believe most members think that some kind of consolidation is necessary and will become more necessary as time goes by.  Most also believe (I think) that the purpose will be to eventually merge parishes and make more efficient use of priests,” Murray said. “I don’t detect anger at this.  I think the archdiocese is handling the situation wisely and cautiously and preparing the faithful for the future.”

 “I think it is a beginning for preparing for less priests and downsizing facilities, Beribak added. “But the sooner we prepare and get used to small steps, the easier it will be to accept the inevitable changes to come.”

Fr. Hurlbert agreed with Beeribak that an incremental approach is best, partly because the archdiocese is learning as it goes along.  

“We have yet to really begin the work of understanding the best way to restructure the Catholic community of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park,” he said.  “We will begin talking about ways to engage in what they are calling ‘soft collaboration’ as a preliminary step towards planning for the future, and to help us engage with one another in a more intentional way.”

Reich agrees the grouping is necessary, but said that St. Bernardine may have been a better fit with other nearby churches with more similar socio-economic demographics, such as Berwyn or Maywood.  

Other dioceses across the country, including in Philadelphia, are going through a similar process.