Forest Park losing its only Catholic Church is one of two scenarios being considered by the Archdiocese of Chicago as Forest Park’s St. Bernardine parish and River Forest’s St. Luke parish are independently talking to parishioners and offering feedback to the archdiocese about their preferred path forward.

These two Catholic parishes have been grouped together as part of the archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative, which aims to combine churches throughout the city and suburbs in the face of declining mass attendance and deteriorating finances. Cardinal Blase Cupich will make the ultimate decision of what the grouping will look like.

According to Susan Thomas, public relations and communications manager for the Archdiocese of Chicago, a final decision is scheduled for March.

Under both of the possible scenarios, the two parishes will be united as one, with shared assets, budget and staff.

But the real decision is how the church buildings themselves will be used, with the two archdiocesan options being either 1) closing the doors to St. Bernardine’s church and holding all services at St. Luke’s church, or 2) having one pastor overseeing both churches, which will hold separate masses but be united in finances and governance.

Weekly mass attendance at St. Bernardine’s has fallen to 339 people, less than one-half of the minimum of 800 set by the archdiocese.

Renew My Church began in 2016, when parishes were grouped together and began what is called Discernment and Decisions, the first in a three-step process for churches being combined under Renew My Church. The next two steps are Operations Transitions and Building the New Reality.

Originally, the Discernment and Decisions phase was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023 throughout the entire archdiocese. But as COVID-19 caused greater and sudden financial instability for many churches, the process is being hastened. Now, all groupings – churches that have been identified by the archdiocese as having the potential to be combined in some fashion – will finish the discernment stage in 2022, a year earlier than planned.

For St. Bernardine and St. Luke, the archdiocese held a Zoom presentation on Jan. 7 led by LeRoy Chalmers, senior project manager of operations transition for Renew My Church.

Chalmers said that no decision has yet been made, and the Renew My Church committees at both parishes are encouraged to gather as much feedback as possible to officially submit to the archdiocese.

Feedback will go to the Renew My Church archdiocesan advisory groups that include Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the Chicago Archdiocese, and a panel of priests and other leaders.

“This is not a top-down approach,” Chalmers said, adding that Cupich, who will make the final decision, “is very adamant about getting feedback from the communities, who really know their communities best.”

Ultimately, though, Cupich makes the final call.

Why Renew My Church?

At the core, the archdiocese admits “a decline in faith life” is at the heart of the need to close some churches and combine others.

According to Chalmers’ presentation, mass attendance in the archdiocese has decreased by 27 percent over the past 20 years. In the United States as a whole, two out of five children who are baptized are never confirmed, and 85 percent of children who are confirmed stop practicing their faith by the age of 21.

The total number of priests has declined significantly. In the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2019, out of 746 priests in total, 408 were over the age of 60, raising the question of whether there would be enough priests or pastors to go around if parishes aren’t consolidated.

As Chalmers pointed out in his presentation, in recent years, so much is spent in local churches on maintenance that there is little left over for mission.

“Our model of parish life was built for a different time,” Chalmers said. And despite the fact that the physical structures of churches are beautiful, Chalmers said, many have fallen into disrepair over the years.

“In the past, the offertories of the parishioners sustained the beautiful buildings,” Chalmers said. But lower attendance means lower offerings, and physical upkeep is harder and harder to maintain.

Minimum requirements to remain independent

According to Chalmers’ presentation there are three foundational principles that guide whether a parish might remain independent or should become part of a larger grouping. They relate to regular mass attendance, operating revenue and parish school stability.

Parishes need to have a minimum of 800 parishioners attending mass each weekend to be assigned a full-time pastor. The most recent data collected by the archdiocese shows St. Bernardine with weekly attendance of 339 and St. Luke at 602, both under the necessary cutoff established by the archdiocese.

A parish must have minimum operating revenue of $750,000, excluding rental income, to support staffing of an independent parish. St. Bernardine’s 2019 operating revenue was only $394,604. St. Luke’s was $1,055,559.

As for school stability, St. Bernardine’s school closed in 2013, but St. Luke’s 2020-21 enrollment is at 260, above the minimum 240 student enrollment set by the archdiocese and possibly lower this year due to COVID-19. (Enrollment in the 2019-20 school year was 296.)

Strengths and challenges of grouping the two parishes

Chalmers presented strengths of combining St. Bernardine and St. Luke parishes. Between the two, the weekly 800 parishioner attendance minimum would be met, and financial revenue requirements would be sustained for both parishes, although St. Luke currently meets that one on its own.

There would be the opportunity to bring in more students to St. Luke’s school, and collaboration between youth programs might increase the number of younger families in the combined parish.

Both parishes currently have facilities that are useable, where outreach can be done.

But the archdiocese has identified “challenges” of the grouping as well. For starters, parishioners unhappy about the grouping may leave, and the minimum attendance issue might not be remedied as a result.

Combining liturgical ministries and traditions will most likely be met with some level of difficulty, as will integrating two parishes with no history of working together.

And, if services are moved to St. Luke, and if St. Bernardine’s church is closed, Chalmers pointed out a sad possibility: “Closing St. Bernardine would create a Catholic desert in Forest Park.”

Groupings might not stop with St. Bernardine and St. Luke’s, however. According to Thomas, “St. Vincent Ferrer [in River Forest] will be part of future grouping discussions about evangelization and other ministry after the current structural discussions between St. Bernardine and St. Luke conclude.

St. Vincent Ferrer is owned by the Dominican Friars, which affects the structural options possible between St. Vincent Ferrer and the other two parishes. With this in mind, it has been more fruitful for structural discussions to remain between St. Bernardine and St. Luke.”