The Rev. Norman Thomas, a priest at Detroit's Sacred Heart Church for 42 years, speaks to the congregation at the church. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Detroit —Another round of parish closings is in the works, and the effort may overlap with Mayor Dave Bing's proposed plan to shrink the city. For the past few months, Archdiocese of Detroit officials have met with city officials and population experts on whether to align closings with neighborhoods affected by Bing's Detroit Works Project. That plan, which is expected to emerge late next year, is expected to offer residents incentives to move to seven to nine neighborhoods from underpopulated ones.
Fourteen parishes in Detroit have closed since 2005, and archdiocese officials said they're concerned many of the 55 remaining ones are plagued by plunging memberships and revenues. The archdiocese will recommend parish closures to Archbishop Allen Vigneron by July.
"We've seen parishes that are struggling to maintain crumbling buildings," said Lory McGlinnen, director of the Department of Parish Life and Services for the archdiocese. "Often, parishioners are the last to know what kind of financial predicament (parishes) are in. It's very hurtful."
McGlinnen said it's "by coincidence" that the archdiocese's discussions have come at the same time as talks about downsizing Detroit. But she said it's logical to consider closing parishes in empty areas that the city may not deem viable and could mothball in the Detroit Works Project.
Church leaders are expected to meet with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and others in mid-January about the plans. Details still are being finalized, and the session will be open to the public.
McGlinnen said there is concern in the archdiocese about keeping parishes open in neighborhoods that might be slated for the wrecking ball.
"If we have a church in a neighborhood that is going to be developed only to be demolished, it doesn't make sense to keep a parish there," said McGlinnen.
But there's a palpable fear among congregations, most of them predominantly African-American, that their churches will be lost in a proposed plan to reduce the size of the city.
"We're all standing together," said Lovette Jackson, a longtime parishioner at St. Elizabeth on the city's east side. "If one (parish) closes, that affects all of us. We don't want to see any of them shut down."
Like many who attend city parishes, Jackson now lives in the suburbs. The Oak Park woman said the parishes are losing members because of worries about crime and wariness of attending services in neighborhoods where the only non-blighted or vandalized building remains the church.
"We're surrounded by the blight of the city and then there's the church," said Jackson, who feels her parish is stable and does not have to worry about closing its doors.
The Rev. Norman Thomas, a priest who splits time between St. Elizabeth and Sacred Heart on Eliot near downtown, said all city parishes should remain open.
"We're going to work to make sure that happens," said Thomas, a priest at Sacred Heart for 42 years.
Population trends studied
The last major round of parish closings was more than two decades ago and involved 29 churches in Metro Detroit. The proposed restructuring will begin in Detroit and will expand to suburban parishes, McGlinnen said.
The current discussions are part of the second phase of the archdiocese's "Together in Faith" five-year plan to adjust the church to the shifting population and priest shortage.
The archdiocese plans to begin meetings next month with parish leaders and members. There also will be meetings of officials from vicariates, clusters of parishes, to discuss the fate of individual parishes.
The ultimate decision to close a parish will come from Vigneron.
"He is a very, very strong believer in consultation and collaboration," said McGlinnen. "I think he'll very strongly consider those recommendations from parishes because it's based on data and a strong planning process."
Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, has supplied demographic numbers to the city for its downsizing effort and said he's met with archdiocese officials since March about population trends. He called the process a "deliberate and information-gathering" effort to keep parishes as "engaged as possible."
'The parish remains'
The decision whether a parish closes begins with parish officials.
The Rev. Victor Clore, the longtime priest at Christ the King in the Brightmoor community, said tough economic times have forced many parishes to think about new ways to operate as a church community.
Clore, who has been at Christ the King since 1980, said his parish might not have a full-time priest when he retires. Clore is 70 and most priests retire by age 75.
"The crunch will come when there are fewer and fewer priests," said Clore. "There is a lot of clustering (of parishes) going on now."
The Rev. Michael Nkachukwu, the priest at Good Shepherd and St. Anthony parishes on the city's east side, said he's confident that his parish will survive.
"Good Shepherd is in good shape both financially and otherwise," said Nkachukwu. "We also have a sizable youth population."
Nkachukwu said he learned from the "mistakes" of other parishes that closed because of mounting money problems. He said he cut down on utility bills by having a more efficient furnace installed in the church and purchased newer windows. That was achieved, he said, by asking parishioners for more help through the parish's capital improvement campaign.
John Thorne, the director of the Archdiocese of Detroit's Black Catholic office, said members of Detroit-based churches are especially anxious about the future as more neighborhoods rapidly become empty and residents move to the suburbs or to other states.
"There is a fear in all city parishes because we know our numbers are shrinking," said Thorne.
"We're here to stay," said Thorne. "Parishioners may come and go. Priests may come and go, but the parish remains."
Detroit News Staff Writer Darren A. Nichols contributed.