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Resignation sets in for many in parishes However, bitterness over the diocese's handling of restructuring runs deep with some Catholics

Peter Leo wasn't happy with the closing of St. Agnes Church, but when asked to help spruce up the lone remaining Catholic church in Buffalo's Lovejoy neighborhood, he showed up in his work clothes.

"There's no sense in fighting it any more," Leo said as he installed new wainscoting inside St. Francis of Assisi Church at Schiller and North Ogden streets.

That church is now home to a brand new parish, St. Katherine Drexel -- formed from the recent merger of St. Agnes, St. Francis and Visitation.

Leo, 78, and other volunteers hauled in an altar, statues and other religious artifacts from St. Agnes and Visitation to make the church more welcoming to longtime members of those parishes.

Whether they will come remains to be seen.

The same question will confound many of the urban Catholic churches that survive the Diocese of Buffalo's sweeping restructuring effort.

Diocesan officials acknowledge they have no way of knowing if merging city parishes will stem the tide of massive membership losses and prevent further church closings in the future.

Bitterness about the closures runs deep in the working-class neighborhood of Lovejoy, which also lost its only Catholic school earlier this year.

"There's a lot of people who are hurt," said Leo. "I don't think the bishop went about it in the right way."

Some members of St. Agnes signed on at St. Andrew Church in nearby Sloan; others are attending Corpus Christi, a parish run by the Pauline Fathers and Brothers, independent of the diocese; and still others plan to go to Masses at Holy Family Church in South Buffalo, where the Rev. James B. Cunningham, former St. Agnes pastor, was recently appointed administrator.

In Lockport, where three churches will close and two will stay open, some parishioners already have expressed that they won't join one of the newly merged parishes.

The scattering of parishioners was expected, at least to some degree.

Suburban residents who attend urban churches out of an attachment to a particular building, pastor or congregation often end up joining another Catholic parish closer to where they live, if the city church closes, said Sister Regina Murphy, diocesan director of research and planning.

"Usually the first thing they do is go where it's convenient," Murphy said.

The dramatic changes in the diocese may cause some Catholics to leave the church altogether, but Murphy doesn't foresee a large-scale exodus. The population of Catholics, she said, will continue to shrink in Western New York at its current rate of attrition, in line with larger demographic trends.

Diocesan officials have stressed that by merging parishes, they hope to create larger congregations with more vibrant worship. But there's no guarantee of that happening.

When the diocese shut down four East Side churches in 1993, nearby St. Adalbert Parish received just 12 new families from those churches, said the Rev. Thaddeus Bocianowski, pastor.

The tiny gain was quickly outpaced by the deaths of older members, which cut the parish's membership rolls nearly in half over the past decade.

"We don't have any kids," said Bocianowski. "We have funerals."

Other parishes on the East Side -- St. Stanislaus, Corpus Christi and St. John Kanty -- also saw little growth from the closures and only continued to lose membership.

In June, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec announced that St. Adalbert, with an average of 200 people attending weekend Masses, would have to close, as well.

Many of the members of St. Elizabeth and St. Francis Xavier churches commuted from the suburbs. When those parishes merged with Assumption Parish in Black Rock, Assumption received 38 new parishioners -- which is about what the pastor, the Rev. Richard Jedrzejewski, anticipated.

The diocese, however, appears to have factored in a bigger growth spurt for Assumption. With income at Assumption projected to increase, the diocese predicts it will receive $150,000 more per year in "assessments" from the parish.

"Their financial expectations are totally impractical," said Jedrzejewski.

Jedrzejewski said he supports the diocese's efforts to realign, including on the upper West Side, where six churches were reduced to two.

"I'm convinced we're on the right track," he said. "But getting there is a lot more complicated in the day to day than the theory of one church in Black Rock and one in Riverside."

In central Buffalo, the merger in 1993 of St. Bartholomew and St. Vincent de Paul parishes into Blessed Trinity helped keep the landmark church on Leroy Avenue afloat. Blessed Trinity's membership has continued to erode since the late 1980s, but at a much slower pace than most struggling city parishes.

Blessed Trinity now hopes to get another new infusion of parishioners, when St. Gerard and St. James churches close.

The pastors of St. Gerard and St. James considered asking members to sign a commitment letter saying they would join Blessed Trinity, the church that will remain open in a merger of the three parishes.

But they dropped the idea as heavy-handed.

"There's no use in trying to force people into that," said the Rev. Francis X. Mazur, pastor of St. Gerard.

Instead, parish leaders have been meeting regularly, and members of the three congregations have mingled informally at various outings in each of the parishes the past few months, preparing for a merger in January.

"We've done everything possible to encourage the people to merge with Blessed Trinity. This is a collaborative effort. We've asked the people to give it a chance, give it three, four, six months," Mazur said.

The diocese has had some success stories with city church mergers. St. Martin de Porres Church on Northampton Street, which formed in 1995 after the closure of four parishes, has grown from 351 families in 1997 to 408 in 2007. The membership of Holy Cross Church at Seventh and Niagara streets increased by more than 100 families since nearby Immaculate Conception Parish closed in 2005.

The Rev. James M. Monaco isn't sure what to expect yet as pastor of St. Katherine Drexel, although he knows people won't simply show up because they were told to do so, he said.

Monaco views that as a positive. "People are going to search now. People are going to say, 'This is what I really want,' " he said. "That is going to be tremendously beautiful and meaningful to people."

Proximity alone won't draw worshippers, either, said Monaco, who has had some people from his former parish, St. Francis Xavier, on the West Side, tell him they planned to join St. Katherine Drexel.

"What do they want to see? Good celebration, good music and good preaching," Monaco said.

The parish hired a new music director and organist and re-established a choir in the loft. Last Sunday, Monaco celebrated a single Mass to kick off the new Lovejoy parish, and about 650 people filled the church.

Despite the heartbreak of losing the only church she has known, former St. Agnes member Esther P. Luke said she and her husband, Casey, are giving the new venture a try.

The new parish starts $100,000 in debt and will be responsible for finding new uses or unloading the empty church buildings.

"Unfortunately, there are people from the other parishes who won't come," said Frank DiSanto, a longtime parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi. "The sad part is, if this [doesn't] make it, we won't have a church in this neighborhood."


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