Southern Tier Catholics received word Saturday that five parishes will merge into two in Allegany and Wyoming counties, the most rural and least populous areas of the Diocese of Buffalo.
The announcements at Masses on Saturday afternoon and evening were the latest steps in a diocesan planning process that began in 2005 and is expected to result in dozens of church closings.
In Allegany County, scheduled to merge into a single parish are Sacred Heart in Angelica, St. Joseph in Scio and St. Mary in Belmont.
They will take the name Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and be housed in the Belmont church.
The church in Scio will continue to exist as an oratory, a sacred site used for special occasions such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. A use for the Angelica church has not be worked out yet, although the new parish plans to maintain it, perhaps for outreach to the poor.
"It's a very difficult thing. We did take the brunt in my parishes," said the Rev. Dennis J. Mancuso, current pastor of all of the merging parishes. "The attitude of my people for the most part is they don't necessarily like it, but if this is what it's going to be, let's just get it over with."
In Wyoming County, Assumption Parish in Portageville was set to merge into St. Mary Parish in Silver Springs. The Portageville property will no longer be used.
Two existing oratories in Allegany County -- one in Whitesville, the other in Friendship -- also will be shut down and sold.
At the Masses, pastors of the Allegany parishes informed their congregations by reading a letter from Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.
"We knew in the late '80s that something was going to happen, but no one would face it until this came up," said the Rev. Jerome M. Dissek, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels in Cuba and St. Mary in Bolivar.
Diocesan officials said Kmiec will comment this afternoon on the restructurings, which follow a March announcement in which 10 parishes in various parts of the diocese were to merge into five.
At the time, the bishop said he would continue to unveil more decisions as they are ready.
Allegany County Catholics have been waiting anxiously.
"It's not easy to live with the uncertainty," said the Rev. Eugene P. Ulrich, pastor of SS. Brendan & Jude Parish in Almond and Alfred.
Many of the 4,650 registered Catholics in Allegany County -- less than 10 percent of the county population -- feared that their tiny, close-knit parishes, some of which are more than a century old, would be an easy target in diocesan downsizing efforts.
"Most of the parishes were on the bubble in one way or another because we're smaller than most everyone else," Mancuso said. "There's just sadness that it had to come to this. It's not so much anger, as a sense of deep sadness."
St. Joseph in Scio was formed in 1843 as a mission of the Archdiocese of New York, before the establishment of the Diocese of Buffalo. Sacred Heart was formed in 1848; its building, constructed in 1851, is one of the oldest continuously used buildings in the diocese.
The new parish in Belmont also will continue on without a resident priest pastor.
A pastoral administrator will be appointed to oversee the day-to-day activity of Holy Family.
St. Mary Parish in Bolivar also will get a pastoral administrator instead of a pastor who is a priest.
The changes are expected to take place within the next two to six months.
"Some people are going to feel disillusioned. In their better moments, they'll say, 'I know it has to happen, but why does it have to be us?' " said Monsignor Vincent J. Becker, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Wellsville and Blessed Sacrament Parish in Andover.
The changes are part of an effort called "Journey in Faith & Grace" to better align the number of churches in the diocese with a shrinking diocesan priesthood that is expected to dip below 150 by 2015.
Diocesan planners anticipate they will be able to allocate five priests, down from six now, in Allegany County.
The changes announced Saturday affect all of the Allegany County Catholic churches and the two churches in Wyoming County. Other changes have yet to be announced for the rest of Wyoming County.
How five priests cover the remaining parishes in the Allegany region also will change.
In most cases, the Allegany churches are spread 10 to 20 miles from each other, and a key consideration of diocesan planners was accessibility to Masses and other church functions in the hilly and snowy rural area. A planning commission with the responsibility for making recommendations to Kmiec even sent some of its members to explore driving distances and conditions.
One change, for example, will have the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Wellsville -- instead of the pastor of Our Lady of the Angels in Cuba -- offer Masses at St. Mary in Bolivar.
It's an easier, safer drive in the winter from Wellsville to Bolivar than from Cuba to Bolivar. "Especially on Sunday mornings. They don't plow, and it's pretty bad," said Dissek, who logs 25,000 miles a year driving between Cuba and Bolivar.
Another change links SS. Brendan & Jude Parish, an already merged community with worship sites in Almond and Alfred, with Blessed Sacrament Parish in Andover.
St. Brendan Church in Almond will no longer host a weekend Mass, although it will function as an active oratory, with daily Masses on Mondays and Wednesdays, plus funerals, Ulrich said.
St. Patrick Parish in Belfast, now linked with the parishes in Belmont, Scio and Angelica, will be linked and share a priest instead with St. Patrick in Fillmore. St. Mary in Canaseraga will become a free-standing parish with its own priest.
"The parish has seen some growth. Parishioners are coming there from the Rochester Diocese. There are young families in Canaseraga," Ulrich said.
That plan will be reviewed in three to five years, he added.
Additionally, St. Mark Parish in Rushford will continue as it is -- depending on the health of the Rev. Francis J. Jann, the longtime pastor.
If Jann is not able to continue, the parish will be linked with St. Philomena in Franklinville and become an oratory, used primarily for Masses during summer vacation season.
Allegany Correspondent Bob Weigand contributed to this report.