Criticism about the Diocese of Buffalo's efforts to close churches has emanated from a small Dunkirk-based group of Catholic parishioners for months -- even though a proposal had yet to be recommended for that area of the diocese.
A plan finally was unveiled Tuesday, and, as many parishioners had feared, it called for the closing of several northern Chautauqua County churches.
Thirteen parishes in the northern part of the county would be reduced to six under the recommendations forward to Bishop Edward U. Kmiec by a diocesan commission.
The churches slated to close under the plan are St. Hedwig in Dunkirk, St. Joseph in Fredonia, Immaculate Conception in Cassadaga, St. Thomas More in Ripley and St. John Bosco in Sheridan.
The commission appointed by Kmiec more than two years ago made the recommendations, based on suggestions brought forth by parishioners and priests in the region, which stretches from Silver Creek to Ripley and includes the City of Dunkirk and the Village of Fredonia.
Kmiec will make the final decision on the closures.
The recommendations were the latest development in the "Journey in Faith & Grace," which already has resulted in the announcement of mergers of more than 130 parishes across the eight counties of the diocese.
The diocese Tuesday took the unusual step of releasing the recommendations to the media. In the past, diocesan officials have declined to comment on recommendations, preferring to have pastors make the announcements directly to their parishioners during weekend liturgies.
Diocesan officials cited "heightened interest" in northern Chautauqua County as the reason for publicly announcing the recommendations.
The recommendations were broken down into three regions.
In the western region, St. James Major in Westfield and St. Patrick in Brocton would be combined, perhaps with a new name but using both sites; St. Thomas More in Ripley would be closed.
In the eastern region, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Silver Creek, St. Rose of Lima in Forestville and St. John Bosco in Sheridan would merge, possibly with a new name, using the Silver Creek and Forestville sites, with the Sheridan church being closed.
In the central region, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Joseph in Fredonia and Immaculate Conception in Cassadaga would combine, also perhaps with a new name, using St. Anthony as the primary church and Immaculate Conception as a secondary site with one weekend liturgy.
In Dunkirk, also in the central region, St. Hedwig and St. Hyacinth would merge, with the St. Hedwig property being sold. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first church formed in the merger process, remains; and Holy Trinity will form a collaborative relationship with the Newman Center at Fredonia State College.
Dunkirk is the home of Catholic Parishioners Against Church Suppression (CPACS), a lay group that operates a Web site and has been highly critical of Kmiec's efforts to shutter churches and merge parishes.
"They're recommendations, but it doesn't look good at all," said Bill Parks, one of the founders of CPACS, who had an animated exchange with Kmiec in August in a Dunkirk hotel that led to an investigation by Chautauqua County authorities. No charges were filed. "I consider the proposal to close St. Hedwig's in Dunkirk a major tragedy."
Parks predicted members of St. Hedwig Church would stop attending Masses altogether.
Longtime St. Hedwig parishioner John Woloszyn, a former member of the City Council, said the parish was still vibrant and able to pay its bills, with savings in the bank.
"I always feel if it's broke don't fix it," he said.
But the trends for Chautauqua County were not promising. The number of Catholic marriages fell to 95 in 2005 from 216 in 1990, and there were 206 baptisms in 2005, compared with 592 in 1990.
The recommendations forwarded to the bishop were the best plans that a group of parishioners working on the restructuring could develop, said the Rev. Patrick Elis, episcopal vicar for the Northern Chautauqua vicariate.
"When we did this, the lay people made these recommendations," said Elis, adding that priests of the parishes did not participate in the voting process.
The group met 28 times over the past two years or so, he said.
Kmiec's final decision on the Chautauqua County parishes is expected by the end of this year.