Parishioners of four Catholic churches in the western suburbs, including St. Barbara in Brookfield and St. Louise de Marillac in LaGrange Park are gathering this week to begin discussing their faith communities’ future – which could include merging some or all of them.
The two local churches, along with Divine Providence and Divine Infant, both in Westchester, are among several Chicago-area churches in the “first wave” of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church initiative, which confronts the realities of smaller congregations with fewer priests to serve them.
St. Louise parishioners are gathering for a “town hall” type discussion on March 21, while St. Barbara parishioners are meeting March 22. The town halls come in the wake of a March 12 meeting of representatives from all four parishes along with an archdiocesan facilitator.
“Where we’re at is that we’re just talking,” said Rev. Denis Condon, pastor of St. Louise Church in a phone interview last week. “We’re waiting to see what the reaction of our people is in each case.”
The archdiocese has presented the group of parishes with two possible scenarios – alternatives that are meant to serve as discussion starters, said Rev. Jason Malave, who is Cardinal Blase Cupich’s liaison for the Renew My Church initiative.
According to Malave, those scenarios include a more drastic option, where all four parishes share a single pastor and determine how best to use the combined resources. A second option imagines the creation of two parishes — one combining St. Barbara and St. Louise and the other combining the two Westchester churches — with a pastor for each combined two-church parish.
Both scenarios contemplate St. Louise de Marillac School ceasing to operate as a K-8 school beginning in the fall of 2019, and instead parishioners examining the feasibility of St. Louise School continuing to offer an early childhood education program as well as before and after care.
Malave said one of the key elements of Renew My Church is “building communities that are strong and well-resourced. Combining resources allows us to have a better resourced parish.”
Parishioners may or may not adopt either scenario, but in the end it seems clear that some sort of change is on the way, and that the parishes are likely to know what’s in store for them by fall.
Malave said the four parish commissions will meet with one another and parishioners in the next couple of months. The commission will then send feedback to the cardinal, who will announce next steps later this year.
St. Barbara Church’s pastor, Rev. Edgar Rodriguez, did not return a phone call from the Landmark.
But in the St. Barbara Parish bulletin from March 11, Rodriguez touched on the topic of the scenarios contemplated by Renew My Church.
“We saw that the situation requires action which might include changes to the existing structures and present organization,” Rodriguez wrote. “The purpose is to ensure sustainability and a vibrant and revitalized Catholic presence in the area.”
The four suburban churches are not the first in the archdiocese to undergo this self-examination. In 2016 and 2017 two groups of parishes, one on the North Shore and one on the Northwest Side of Chicago, went through the process. In both cases, parish resources merged although church buildings continued to host Masses.
On the North Shore, for example, several parishes merged with a shared pastor, but their church buildings remained “active worship sites.” In one of the mergers, a single school was designated as the parish school, while in another, schools remained intact.
In the west suburban grouping, three of the four parishes – St. Louise, Divine Infant and Divine Providence — currently operate schools. St. Barbara School closed in 2012. In both initial scenarios for the west suburban grouping, the archdiocese suggests evaluating whether it still would be feasible to support PK-8 schools at both Divine Infant and Divine Providence.
The key to creating vibrant Catholic faith communities and reversing the trend of declining membership and vocations to the priesthood, the archdiocese has emphasized, is in the hands of everyday Catholics, like local parishioners.
Evangelization, a skill contemporary Catholics have not fine-tuned and have largely avoided, is another critical element of Renew My Church, said Malave.
“If we’re going to stem the tide we see, then we’re called to evangelize in new, effective ways,” Malave said.
“It’s not something we’re good at as Catholics, and we have to work at that. Without it, it’s just a structural reorg.”
All of the archdiocese’s churches are part of Renew My Church and will undergo similar discussions in the future.
This story has been changed to include more specific information about the initial scenarions suggested for the west suburban church grouping by the acrhdiocese.