Being the shepherd of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is no doubt a tough job. Much of the flock has strayed, both geographically and spiritually, and many of the churches and buildings remain damaged from Hurricane Katrina, some standing in areas where parishes barely exist anymore … All of this in a spiritual town with a passion for celebrating its Catholic culture.
Now comes the issue of church closings and some in the flock are angry – we think rightfully so.
We understand that there are currently more churches than there is need. One reason is population shifts; another is that the church, in early days, often over-built not just in New Orleans but also globally, especially in cities where a place to worship was a status symbol for burgeoning urban neighborhoods.
Since ancient times, houses of worship have been people’s temples – palaces for ritual but also for the oneness of spiritual need. Personal family histories would be linked to individual churches, which were the site of marriages, baptisms, communions and farewells. To those who used them, a parish church could develop a string emotional hold.
What is perplexing about the current round of church closings is that, in an era when organized religion is facing so much decline, why not give those who want to be a part of preserving its shrines a chance?
Two Uptown churches, St. Henry and Our Lady of Good Counsel, are among those facing closings. Both have active parishioners with a commitment to their parish, both have a solid, if not substantial, financial base.
For the good of the archdiocese, and the soul, we urge the following:
- That those two churches along with two other Uptown parishes – St. Stephen and Blessed Sacrament, a small parish with a mostly black clientele – be combined under one administrative board consisting of representatives of the archdioceses as well as the laity from the four parishes.
- That the board will be answerable to the archdiocese but will have the responsibility for financially supporting and maintaining the parishes.
- That a group of perhaps four priests be assigned by the Archdiocese to minister to the four parishes.
- That the board should be established as a legal corporation working under contract with the archdiocese for a trail period of several years.
- That after the expiration of the contract the question of closing the churches should be reviewed.
Some parishes have extraordinary sources of revenue. St. Henry, for example, has a former parochial school building that it has been able to rent to independent schools. Such income could be used to the benefit of all four parishes. Given the financial responsibility, the board could also find its own creative ways to keep the parishes open.
This plan would give the faithful a chance to save what they believe in and to help the universal church as well.
Whatever is done, we urge the archdiocese to enter a more open face-to-face dialogue with those who want to save the churches and not to rely just on standardized statements. Those who want to save the church are not the enemy; they are a blessing to flock.
Other archdioceses are facing similar crises. Here is a chance for New Orleans to develop an unprecedented partnership between religious and laity. The spirit is willing. The spirit is able.
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