Strapped Parishes Bracing for Cuts

By Yadira Betances
The Eagle Tribune [Lawrence MA]
March 7, 2003

On the weekend of Feb. 23, Asuncion de la Virgen Maria Church in Lawrence had $1,913 in its weekly collection. The heating bill alone for last month was $900, and the church has plenty of other expenses.

The parish, located in the Arlington neighborhood of Lawrence, nets less than $3,000 a week in collection money and other donations from parishioners, and needs financial help from the Archdiocese of Boston to make ends meet.

In all likelihood, things are about to get worse.

In a bulletin sent to priests Monday, Bishop Richard Lennon told clerics there is a need to cut expenses in the archdiocese by at least $4 million for the coming year. It is a 20 percent cut that comes on the heels of a 30 percent cut last year. The struggling economy and struggling fund-raising efforts are to blame.

"I realize that decisions that I will make will affect not only the various offices and apostates of the Archdiocese, thus affecting their ability to offer services and programs, but also will affect parishes," Lennon, head of the archdiocese, wrote in the one-page letter.

He also wrote that he will have the budget ready by the end of this month so the finance council of the archdiocese can review it, after which "notices will be sent to all affected informing them of the reductions."

David W. Smith, chancellor for the archdiocese, said the cuts "will favor the poor."

The Rev. Paul McManus of Asuncion said the subsidy that his parish receives from the archdiocese was cut by 15 percent in the last fiscal year, and another cut will have a significant impact because the parish is already strained. He is the only priest at Asuncion, although three Mexican nuns and several lay leaders help him with ministries. Salaries for the nuns are paid by other sources.

Still, the parishes in Lawrence continue to reorganize to handle the budget cuts. The city's seven parishes will merge into three by 2005.

According to that proposal:

r Sacred Heart Church and school will join with those of St. Patrick Parish.

r Asuncion will merge with St. Mary Inmaculada Concepcion Parish and school.

r Holy Rosary and Sts. Peter & Paul will merge with Holy Trinity Parish and school.

"We've planned for the future already," said the Rev. Albert Sylvia, pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul, which caters to the spiritual needs of the Portuguese community. "The changes and reductions were anticipated.''

Other than parishes like Asuncion, local priests said the budget cuts will only affect their congregations indirectly.

The Rev. James J. Ronan, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, said every church in the archdiocese uses central services ranging from pension plan programs to building engineers.

The Rev. Bill Waters, pastor of St. Mary Inmaculada Concepcion, said his parish utilizes the assistance of the archdiocese's religious education, real estate and facility offices.

"It will affect us indirectly in the sense that they (archdiocesan offices) may have less personnel and services as resources for the parishes," he said.

Waters said the cuts will not directly affect parishioners.

Greater Lawrence church officials said they have noticed little or no dip in attendance or in their weekly offertory collections this year.

At St. Lucy's Parish in Methuen, the Rev. Angelo P. Loscocco said some 1,400 to 1,500 families belong to the parish, and attendance is "holding up" despite the sex abuse scandal and difficult economic times.

"Our people are faithful and they're troubled at times, but they realize there are human beings involved and it doesn't affect their faith," he said. "Our faith tells us the Holy Spirit is still with us, regardless of what the problems are."

Other local churches aren't as lucky, especially in Haverhill, where priests say people are turning away from their parishes.

"All of our collections are down in Haverhill," said the Rev. Dennis T. Nason, pastor of All Saints Parish, referring to the city's four Catholic parishes. "People are not coming to church probably because of the crisis."

Haverhill churches rely more heavily on what members decide to donate weekly in the offertory. None of the Haverhill churches receive money from the archdiocese, according to Nason, but the city's two Catholic schools do rely on the archdiocese for money.

The alarming drop in the number of active priests is also weighing heavily on local churches.

According to the Boston Catholic Directory, the number of active priests in the archdiocese has dropped to 505. In 1981, there were 1,072 priests working in parishes or administrative positions in the archdiocese.

Last year alone, the ranks of active priests in the diocese reportedly fell by about 10 percent. Loscocco, who was scheduled to retire from St. Lucy's Parish in Methuen earlier this year, is still on the job because church officials have not found a replacement.

Nason said Greater Haverhill churches are working together to ease the priest shortage. For example, during Lent, missions are held at different churches each week.

He added that St. Joseph School at All Saints Parish is doing well financially. In fact, there is a waiting list for some grades. But if the archdiocese cuts the school's stipend, the parish will have to make up the difference, he said.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Frederick E. Sweeney, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Haverhill, said he doesn't believe any more churches in Haverhill will close. In 1998, four churches -- St. George, St. Joseph, St. Rita and St. Michael -- merged into what is now All Saints Parish.

Sweeney said he has strong convictions about the division between money and the health of a parish.

"Money does not make a parish or the diocese ... I don't go for the big bucks," he said. "If I want a person's heart, I don't go for their wallet."


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