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Parishes on the brink In WNY's rural areas, Catholic faithful worry that they may lose the most in diocesan restructuring

The farthest reaches of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo stretch into the picturesque hills and valleys of Allegany and Cattaraugus counties, into towns such as Birdsall and Belmont, and into churches with such unfamiliar names as St. Pacificus and St. Philomena.

Catholicism quietly has thrived in these once oil-rich rural areas for generations -- since before the formation of the Diocese of Buffalo.

But rural parishioners worry that they will be the odd Catholics out as the diocese plans a major restructuring of the area's Catholic landscape.

Many of the parishes are tiny. Nestled in sparsely populated areas, out of sight and mind of the vast majority of Western New York Catholics, they have limited political clout.

"When you look at these small parishes, they're afraid. They're scared to death they're going to be shut down," said Pat Burdick, who attends St. Mary's Church in Belmont.

With 135 families, St. Mary's is among the largest of the 12 Catholic churches in Allegany County, which has an estimated 6,400 Catholics, making it by far the least populous area in the eight-county diocese. It is also one of the poorest counties in New York State.

Eight of the churches in Allegany County have fewer than 75 registered families.

By 2015, diocesan planners anticipate that the ranks of the priesthood will fall below 150, the smallest number in more than a century. To better correspond with the number of priests available, some planners expect that dozens of churches will need to be consolidated or closed within the next two to three years.

Rural community members hope they won't be easy targets in a campaign to downsize the diocese.

"If a church closes in one of our communities, the Catholic presence is gone," said Deborah Fleming, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Angelica. "If that presence is gone, it's forever gone for those who haven't heard the word from a Catholic perspective."

>Distance is a concern

Sacred Heart is a parish on the bubble. Built in 1851, the white clapboard church is one of the oldest continuously used buildings in the Diocese of Buffalo.

It has no running water -- parishioners use the restroom at the Methodist church next door -- and seats fewer than 90 people.

But many times those pews are at least two-thirds full for 8 a.m. Sunday Mass, said Fleming, a parish trustee. Some families drive the 20 minutes from Birdsall, a town that had a Catholic church of its own from 1850 to 1959.

The Birdsall church, St. Mary's, closed after a contractor mistook the building for an unused Methodist church and accidentally bulldozed it.

If Sacred Heart were shut down, the next-closest church for Birdsall-area Catholics would be another 15 minutes away, over hilly -- and often unplowed -- dirt roads, Fleming said.

"It is different in the rural areas than in the city, where with only a minor amount of inconvenience you could go to another parish," she said.

Some parishioners in rural communities wonder what they would do without the only church they've known -- the place where they were baptized, received their first Holy Communion and had their children baptized.

"That's a question I get all the time: 'If you close my church, where will my funeral be?' " said the Rev. Gregory J. Dobson, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Olean and episcopal vicar for the Southern Cattaraugus vicariate of the diocese.

One possibility is converting parishes into an oratory, in which the building would remain. It could be used for weddings, funerals and occasional services and other activities, but regular Sunday Masses would no longer be celebrated there.

The Southern Tier already has several oratories, which are maintained by the members of a larger parish nearby.

>An issue of fairness

Nearly a third of the 274 parishes and missions in the Buffalo diocese are considered rural churches. As in many parishes in urban and suburban parts of the diocese, their members are getting older.

Take the Northern Chautauqua vicariate, where in 1990 its 14 parishes performed 256 baptisms. This year, the number of baptisms slipped to 108. Only 36 marriages were performed in the vicariate, which has 23,717 registered Catholics.

At St. John the Evangelist Church in Sinclairville, Mass attendance fell off so badly that the remaining members of the parish petitioned Bishop Edward U. Kmiec to shut it down. Sunday Masses were canceled after only one person showed up for a Mass last May.

Even if there were not a clergy shortage, the vicariate would have to consider merging or closing parishes, because people cannot afford to keep 14 churches going, said the Rev. Patrick H. Elis, episcopal vicar and pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Cassadaga.

"If we don't, we would end up, I hate to say it, like Erie County government," he said. "The concern of all of us has to be what is best for the Catholic faith."

The Buffalo Diocese encompasses 6,455 square miles. This vastness is no more apparent than in the Southern Tier, where churches are eight to 15 miles apart.

The sheer size of the region is forcing diocesan officials to grapple with questions of fairness as they figure out how priests will be distributed in the future and which parishes will stay open.

In Erie and Niagara counties, the most urban and suburban areas of the diocese, there is one parish for every 2,673 registered Catholics. The six remaining counties, including Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties, have one parish for every 754 Catholics.

If the diocese shuts down underutilized urban churches in places such as Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lockport, the discrepancy would only grow more dramatic.

Why shouldn't churches in rural areas be closed, too?

Some Catholics say that equity isn't always in the numbers.

"Our obligation is to make sure the church is accessible to all of the people of the diocese," said Sister Regina Murphy, diocesan planning director. "The key thing is, people can get to church in the city, and we have to be concerned about travel to churches in the rural areas."

Priests in rural areas are already stretched thin.

The Rev. Dennis J. Mancuso, administrator of three parishes, logs 25,000 miles a year on his car, traveling the Allegany hills to reach shut-ins and visit hospitals, in addition to covering Masses and other events at each of the churches.

But Mancuso isn't complaining. He enjoys the rural life and the fact that he knows all of his parishioners.

"You don't have to build community here. It's already been here for a long time," he said. "When you look at what's going on in these little communities, you say, 'I wish I could get that going in some of the other areas of the diocese.' "

Rural parishioners point out that their churches are financially sound and operate with little overhead because volunteers, rather than paid staff, do much of the bookkeeping and maintenance.

And unlike huge city churches that can hold hundreds of people but now draw only a few dozen to Masses, the rural churches in some cases attract the same numbers they did decades ago.

Seventy families make up St. Helen's Parish in Hinsdale, where the pastor, the Rev. Barry J. Allaire, offers two Sunday Masses. During the week, he teaches Greek at Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean.

The church is a low-slung structure of yellow brick. Inside, paneled walls, drop-down ceilings and fluorescent tube lights give it the look of a den of a 1970s split-level ranch. Allaire relies on a programmable device known as a "Synthia" to play organ music during liturgies.

Nonetheless, parishioners attend Mass and pay the bills. They saved money to have stained-glass windows installed, and beyond the church, they support a food pantry and missions in Guatemala. "We try in our own little way to be the presence of the church," Allaire said.

St. Helen's began in 1949 as a missionary apostolate, one of several rural outposts set up by Bishop John A. Duffy and his successor, Bishop John F. O'Hara, to expand the faith and give young priests the opportunity to preach and minister.

Allaire and others fear that the diocese would lose its evangelistic zeal if it retrenches from places such as Hinsdale.

"Pastoral planning has to take into account what I think Bishop Duffy was looking at -- to try and extend the church," he said. "That vision is still something that applies to the rural areas of the diocese."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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