Concerns raised on merging of area parishes
by BRIAN NADIG
Concerns about the expected merger of Saint Thecla School and the north campus of Pope Francis Global Academy highlighted an Aug. 27 town hall meeting about the planned consolidation of the Saint Tarcissus, Saint Thecla and Saint Cornelius parishes.
The meeting attracted a crowd of close to 150 people to Saint Tarcissus Church, 6020 W. Ardmore Ave., while other parishes held similar meetings the previous week.
In the Sept. 1 parish bulletin, Saint Tarcissus Parish pastor Mike Grisolano asked parishioners to keep an open mind about the consolidation process and wrote that while change is difficult, "it can also be for our own good."
"It’s natural to have something of a territorial spirit, a few people have been telling me about how everything should just stay here and that the other two parishes and the Saint Thecla School can just close. While it may be natural to want everyone else to change, it’s far healthier spiritually to be ready for anything.
"Furthermore, it is clear that we will be united to the people of Saint Cornelius, and Saint Thecla on the parish level so we should start seeing them as follow Catholics, brothers and sisters in the Lord, and ultimately that we will be fellow parishioners with them."
The spirit of cooperation that Grisolano talks about has shown up on the football field.
This summer Saint Thecla athletic director Mike Brosnan invited north campus students to join its football and cheerleading programs, and one Saint Tarcissus cheerleading parent said in an interview that the merger could work if families give it a chance.
"They were just so nice and welcoming," Kate Harrity-Shewchuk said of the Saint Thecla parents. "We are all in this boat together, and if we don’t keep (the children) together, nobody else will."
The Archdiocese of Chicago requested that any journalist at the town hall session not to report on comments made during the meeting because the dialogue was intended for parish members only.
However, all meeting attendees were provided with information sheets with statistics showing how the U.S. Catholic Church is struggling to attract younger parishioners and how enrollment at the north campus of Pope Francis academy has dropped by about 30 percent in the past 4 years.
"Millennials are less religious than preceding generations," the handout states and that "85 percent of children confirmed stop practicing their faith by age 21, (and) Catholic marriages are down 55 percent since 1990."
At Saint Tarcissus, five weddings were held at its church from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, and attendance at weekend Mass has dropped 62 percent in the past 20 years, with a weekend average of 1,872 attendees in 1998 and 705 in 2018.
Attendance at the other two parishes has similarly declined, and one church reportedly could accommodate the approximately 2,030 combined weekend mass attendance of the three parishes.
At all three parishes the consolidation could include the selling or leasing of buildings due in part to high maintenance costs. At Saint Tarcissus, it is estimated that $2.4 million of improvements, including tuckpointing, will be required during the next 7 years.
Also on the handout, figures were provided showing how the Pope Francis north campus, which is located inside the former Saint Tarcissus School, had an enrollment of 277 students in 2016-17 but that the number is down to 186 for this fall. Some parishioners said that 4 years ago enrollment was top heavy with seventh and eighth graders.
Enrollment on the south campus, which is located inside the former Saint Pascal School, has remained constant at around 215 since the academy opened in 2016. The south campus could be merged with another school when the archdiocese next year considers additional parish consolidation on the Northwest Side.
The Pope Francis academy resulted in 2016 from the merger of the parish schools at Saint Cornelius, Our Lady of Victory, Saint Tarcissus and Saint Pascal. Saint Thecla and Saint Constance were invited to be part of the school merger plan in 2016 but declined.
Under its "Renew My Church" initiative, the archdiocese examines an elementary school’s potential to enroll a minimum 240 students when deciding whether a school should be merged or remain on its own.
A Saint Tarcissus parishioner said after the meeting that it is frustrating to academy parents to have to go through a second merger in 4 years and that he hopes the additional uncertainty, including where the merged school would be located, does not scare away families.
"It’s exhausting," he said. "I’m worried (families) could go somewhere which is more established." The parishioner added that in 2016 most of the Saint Cornelius students did not enroll at the academy.
Another parishioner said after the meeting that members of each parish should be surveyed and asked under which of the consolidation scenarios would they remain an active member. "Then you know the numbers," he said.
The archdiocese recently announced six consolidation scenarios for the three parishes.
Under the consolidation it is possible that worship services would continue at all three church sites. However, the archdiocese also is considering scenarios in which services would be held at only one or two of the three churches, leading to the closing of one or two of the parish campuses.
A new name reportedly would be chosen for the combined parish, but the existing church buildings on each existing campus could retain their current parish name.
"A united parish has one pastor, budget, staff, finance council, etc. … but may have multiple churches," the handout states. "For schools, the archdiocese has set an additional expectation that one parish should have one school program, though it may operate on multiple campuses."
The merged school would be housed at either Saint Thecla or Saint Tarcissus, or it could be split over both campuses, one for lower grades and the other for upper grades. Most of the town hall attendees expressed a preference for one campus, according to a parishioner.
Also under the initiative, parishes are expected to have an annual operating income of at least $750,000 (excluding rental revenue) in addition to the 800 or more Mass attendees each weekend. None of the three parishes reportedly are meeting those numbers.
"I don’t know which of the (parish consolidation) scenarios Cardinal Cupich will finally decide upon, but I’m preparing myself for any of them … so should you," Grisolano wrote the recent bulletin. The archdiocese is taking feedback from the discernment team at each parish and plans to announce a final plan in November.