Declining number of priests, parishioners force Catholics to ‘right size’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 June 2024 at 6:48 pm

Orleans expected to go from 3 full-time priests to 2 in near future

Photos by Tom Rivers: Father Mark Noonan, priest for a family of six Catholic churches in Orleans and eastern Niagara counties, met with about 35 parishioners on Wednesday evening for about two hours at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Holley. Father Noonan went over recent data, showing a declining number of priests and church attendees in the 8-county Diocese of Buffalo.

HOLLEY – The numbers at local Catholic churches mirror the challenge throughout the 8-county Diocese of Buffalo: a shrinking number of priests, and smaller congregations and financial resources.

Father Mark Noonan, a priest serving churches in Orleans and eastern Niagara counties, met with about 35 people on Wednesday evening at St. Mary’s in Holley, the first of seven meetings he is holding through Sunday with parishioners at Catholic churches in Holley, Kendall, Albion, Medina, Middleport and Barker.

Noonan is giving the local Catholics a chance to weigh in on a proposal announced last week from the Diocese of Buffalo that would close 34 percent of the churches in the Diocese. The churches in Orleans County are part of a family of churches in Orleans and eastern Niagara. The recommendation from the Diocese is to keep Catholic churches in Medina, Albion and Holley.

“This makes sure there is a Catholic presence within a reasonable geographic distance,” Father Noonan said during a two-hour meeting on Wednesday evening. “I don’t want to lose anything. But what is best for this family of parishes long-term?”

The proposal from the Diocese for ONE Catholic (Orleans and Niagara East) would close St. Mark’s in Kendall and St. Stephen’s in Middleport. St. Joseph’s in Lyndonville was badly damaged in a fire last year and then torn down. The site and the rectory will be sold, and so will the land in Hulberton for the St. Rocco’s Italian Festival.

The Diocese also recommends to move Barker to a different family of churches in Niagara County. That will better align them with churches that are closer to Barker, Noonan said.

Father Mark Noonan said he wants the local Catholic churches to re-engage with the community, especially with its outreach to younger families.

The restructured family of churches will go from seven sites when the family was created to start 2023 to three churches with three priests serving congregations in Medina, Albion and Holley.

Father Noonan said he thinks of the churches locally as “one big family.” He knows some of the Catholics are hurting because their long-term church home has been recommended to close. That includes the church where he was raised: St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Cheektowaga.

“Some of our members in the ONE Catholic community are hurting,” Father Noonan said.

When the Diocese has closed churches before in a downsizing or “right sizing,” Father Noonan said there was a tendency to feel like there had been winners and losers though the process.

“We can’t have that,” he said. “When something is lost, that pertains to all of us. We something is gained, that pertains to all of us.”

Jim Simon of Lyndonville is president of the pastoral council for the family of churches. He said the plan to close about a third of the churches in the Diocese is painful. He is hopeful this will be the last downsizing needed by the Diocese.

“We don’t want to do this again in five years,” he said.

Jim Simon of Lyndonville is president of the pastoral council for a family of churches in Orleans and eastern Niagara counties. He is hopeful the downsizing plan presented by the Diocese will be the last time the organization has to consider closing churches and selling off property. He urged the attendees on Wednesday “to keep the faith and move forward.”

Father Noonan looked at historical data from the ONE Catholic family of churches in Orleans and Niagara East.

The churches, which used to include a site in Gasport and smaller churches in Albion and Medina, had 14 priests in 1985. There were eight or nine assigned to the area in 2005. Now there are three priests – Father Mark Noonan, Father Paul Ladda and Father Jan Trela.

In the Diocese there were 511 active priests assigned to parishes in the 8 counties. Now there are about 115 assigned to churches. That is projected to further drop to 70 in 2030, and then 38 in 2040.

The weekly attendance at the ONE Catholic churches is down collectively from about 1,600 in 2012 to 1,000 in 2023. In the past year, however, it is up about 100, with Holy Trinity in Medina seeing 10 percent growth a Spanish-speaking Mass at Holy Family in Albion drawing about 50 on Sunday afternoons.

Among the ONE Catholic churches individually, the average weekly Mass attendance so far this year include 165 at St. Mary’s in Holley, 27 at St. Mark’s in Kendall, 270 at Holy Family in Albion (plus another 50 for a Spanish-speaking Mass), 273 at Holy Trinity in Medina, 80 at St. Stephen’s in Middleport, and 121 at Our Lady of the Lake in Barker.

Among ONE Catholic churches, annual baptisms in the past decade are down from 76 to 21, while weddings dropped from 21 to 9, and confirmations also decreased from 119 to 39. There were about 600 children in religious education in 2012. Now it’s about 130, Father Noonan said.

The local churches long-term viability will need more younger families, Father Noonan said. He said the churches need to reach out to those who have stopped going to church, and invite people who haven’t been.

“I want to find new ways to grow,” Father Noonan said. “Our goal is to grow, to grow in our spiritual lives and to reach out to more people.”

He would like to see more Bible studies and small group discipleship programs in ONE Catholic .

At the Holley meeting, two of the parishioners asked that the St. Rocco’s festival grounds not be sold. The site is used for a popular Italian festival the day before Labor Day in a tradition going back nearly 50 years.

Father Noonan said the festival could be at a village park or at the St. Mary’s church property. He said the Lawn Fete at Holy Family also is a popular church festival at the Albion parish property.

“Using St. Rocco’s one day a year doesn’t make sense to me,” Father Noonan said.

The church buildings and properties that are sold will go towards a settlement for victims of sexual abuse by priests. That settlement is in negotiation. About 900 people have claimed they were abused by priests.

One of the parishioners at the Holley meeting said the abuse scandal has driven many from the church.

St. Mary’s in Holley would be the only Catholic church to remain open in eastern Orleans, according to a proposal from the Diocese of Buffalo. St. Mark’s in Kendall is recommended to close.

Father Noonan also held meetings on Thursday at St. Stephen’s in Middleport and Holy Family in Albion, and today at St. Mary’s in Medina.

There are meetings scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. at Our Lady of the Lake in Barker, and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s in Kendall, and then a final Spanish language meeting on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Holy Family in Albion.

Any counter proposals from the Diocese recommendations must be submitted by July 15. If a family of churches recommends keeping one church open that is proposed to close, the family has to pick a different church to close, Father Noonan said.

“There has to be a one-for-one,” he said.

From the counter-proposals from the families of churches the Diocese is expected to make a final decision in September on which churches will be closed.