The Rev. Robert L. Gebhard Jr. wanted to make sure parishioners of St. James Catholic Church knew exactly where they would be attending Ash Wednesday services this year.
After Mass on Sunday morning, Gebhard jovially asked the congregation of 150 people, "Ash Wednesday, where will you come?"
Their response: "St. Gerard's." Then, said Gebhard, "Next Sunday, where will you come?" Again, the congregation answered: "St. Gerard's."
"I'll bet," joked the pastor, "some of you come here."
Ash Wednesday this year marks not only the beginning of Lent, but the latest phase in a Diocese of Buffalo plan to close, merge and otherwise reorganize parishes across eight counties.
Catholics throughout Western New York will be meeting in geographic cluster groups, with an eye toward developing consensus about what churches to keep open and which to close.
Few of those clusters will face as many hard choices as the eight churches -- including St. James and St. Gerard -- considered part of the "central city," a zone that is predominantly non-Catholic, yet still supports several large and difficult-to-maintain properties.
By 2015, diocesan officials anticipate assigning only one priest to the area, which currently has eight. It would be nearly impossible to keep all of the churches in the area open.
Already, most of them struggle to pay utility bills. St. James, for example, has used nearly $30,000 in savings the past five months for operations.
St. Gerard, with 100 parishioners, has had to put off repairs. Just last week, a new water leak emerged in the church.
"We're having a hard time supporting it," said Dick Ciezki, a parish trustee.
Members of St. James and St. Gerard -- which are less than a mile apart on Bailey Avenue -- decided last fall to move even faster than the diocesan plan. Over the past six weeks, they essentially merged two parishes into one.
In January, five weekend Masses between the two churches were pared to two at one church. St. James hosted the first six weekends of Masses. During Lent, parishioners of the two churches will attend services in St. Gerard.
They will continue to alternate between the two churches, switching at the start of each new liturgical season.
The two parishes over the past five years had gotten together on numerous occasions but never in such dramatic fashion.
"People felt we were talking too much and we needed some action," said Sister Mary Laura Lesniak, pastoral associate for both parishes.
The blending has not always been easy. Some members of St. Gerard grudgingly attended the less-familiar St. James. Others who commuted from the suburbs chose to go to parishes closer to home.
Ciezki, the St. Gerard trustee, admitted to some discomfort during the first Mass at St. James.
"It was a little more difficult than I thought it would be," he said. "Even though we were welcome, I felt very different. I really missed St. Gerard's. People were nice, but they still spoke of, 'This is how we do it here,' I just felt a little funny that first Sunday."
Ciezki said his unease has since subsided. Ciezki lives with his wife, Dorothy, in Cheektowaga. If St. Gerard were to close, he said, he probably would still return to a consolidated parish in the area.
"I somehow have this loyalty to the neighborhood, as well as the church," he said.
Members of both churches say liturgies improved when they began celebrating together. The size of the folk group has doubled, and people linger and talk with each other in the church after Mass.
"They see that when there's more people there, it just adds to the celebration," said the Rev. Francis X. Mazur, pastor of St. Gerard.
The parishioners of St. Gerard and St. James hope to expand their collaboration to the six other churches within their cluster -- Blessed Trinity, Holy Name of Jesus, St. Lawrence, Queen of Peace, and Most Holy Redeemer and St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga.
"We're looking at a bigger picture with six other parishes. We're saying, 'Out of all of us, there will be one church,' " Mazur said.
Other city clusters also will face tough decisions over the next 18 months or so.
Twenty-seven city parishes have 500 or fewer registered families a number the diocese has been using as an "objective indicator" of whether an urban parish can sustain itself financially over the long term.
"You can only support so much with so many people," said Richard Plunkett, a member of St. James parish.
In all, the diocese anticipates that the 50 priests currently assigned to 59 Buffalo parishes will be reduced to 18 within the next decade, based on the projected availability of clergy in proportion to average weekend Mass attendance in the city.
When St. James parishioners head to St. Gerard for the next several weeks, they will worship in a different environment.
Built in the early 1900s and modeled after the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, St. Gerard features large stained-glass windows, ornamental ceilings with gold leaf and ivory, marble floors and 12 polished red granite columns. It is adorned throughout with ecclesiastic artwork and is capable of seating nearly 900 people.
Supporters of keeping places such as St. Gerard open maintain that they are irreplaceable pieces of architecture and difficult to convert to alternative uses.
But others argue that a newer and simpler structure such as St. James, with its lower ceilings and few adornments, should be kept because it is easier and cheaper to maintain.
Most church members said they were worried about any closed churches contributing to neighborhood blight in areas that depend on those buildings for stability.
Diane Dryja, a member of St. Gerard parish for decades, doesn't want to see a repeat of Transfiguration Church, which the diocese closed in 1993 and sold.
The church sits at the corner of Sycamore and Mills streets, idle and crumbling.
"To see it standing there the way it is now, is heartbreaking," Dryja said. "That reflects on us being Catholics, Christians. We want to make sure the neighborhood doesn't deteriorate because of one of our buildings."
>Old churches, new realities
27 city parishes with 500 or fewer registered families. Date of parish founding is in parenthesis:
St. Adalbert Basilica (1886), 212 Stanislaus St., 287 families. Second-oldest Polish parish in Buffalo.
St. Ann (1858), Broadway and Emslie Street, 117 families. Landmark building run by Jesuits.
St. Anthony of Padua (1891), 160 Court St., 200 families. Italian parish run by Scalabrini priests.
Blessed Trinity (1906), 317 Leroy Ave., 280 families. Listed on National Register of Historic Buildings; renowned for its terra cotta, mosaics and unusual bricks.
St. Columba and St. Brigid (1853), Eagle and Hickory streets, 133 families. Church burned in 2004 is being rebuilt.
Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1950), 364 Dewitt St. and Pooley Place, 237 families. Vietnamese parish.
Corpus Christi (1898), 189 Clark St., 340 families. Historically Polish parish saved from closing by Pauline Fathers in 2003.
St. Elizabeth (1906), 986 Grant St., 156 families. Its administrator is pastor of nearby Assumption Parish, which has larger congregation.
St. Florian (1917), Hertel Avenue and St. Florian Street, 265 families.
St. Francis Xavier (1849), East Street near Amherst Street, 138 families. Latin Mass group has expressed interest in having Tridentine Masses here regularly.
St. Gerard (1902), 1190 Delavan Ave., 104 families. Ornate and imposing church modeled after St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
Holy Apostles SS. Peter and Paul (1909), Clinton and Smith streets, 125 families.
Holy Name of Jesus (1887), 1947 Bailey Ave., 400 families. Hosts shrine of Padre Pio.
Immaculate Heart of Mary (1946), 381 Edison Ave., 160 families.
St. James (1917), Bailey Avenue near Kensington Avenue, 296 families.
St. John the Baptist (1867), 60 Hertel Ave., 180 families. A Buffalo historic landmark renowned for its fancy terra cotta and Spanish tile roof.
St. Joseph Cathedral (1851), 50 Franklin St., 414 families. The bishop's seat and a Buffalo historic landmark.
St. Mary of Sorrows (1872), 333 Guilford St., 90 families. A Buffalo landmark, the sanctuary was converted to Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center.
St. Michael (1851), 651 Washington St., 200 families. One of few remaining downtown churches; run by Jesuits.
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1898), 20 Herkimer St., 350 families.
Our Lady of Loretto (1940), 172 15th St., 300 families.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1897), 115 O'Connell Ave., 220 families.
Precious Blood (1899), Lewis and Lyman streets, 100 families. Run by a Franciscan friar.
Queen of Peace (1920), Genesee and Forman streets, 149 families.
St. Stephen (1875), 193 Elk St., 278 families. Official diocesan shrine of St. Jude.
St. Valentine (1920), 522 South Park Ave., 120 families.
Visitation (1898), Greene and Moreland streets, 275 families.