By Bob Uphues
Susan Storcel grew up at Mater Christi Parish in North Riverside. She enrolled at the parish elementary school in 1959, just three years after it opened and just six years after the parish itself was dedicated.
Even after moving to LaGrange Park and spending some time away from Mater Christi, its pull was inescapable. She rejoined the parish seven or eight years ago, calling it "family."
Her memories of the parish's original pastor, Father A.H. Menarik, passing out report cards and grilling students who may not have fared well remain vivid.
"He terrified most of us, but I loved him," Storcel said. "And one of the things going through my mind was not only how important this church was for me, but also how important it was to him. It was a prayer for him. As I go through this, I can't get him out of my mind."
The "this" Storcel is referring is three words Chicago-area Catholics have dreaded since 2017 – Renew My Church.
And the Mater Christi family's future is due to change in the next year as it and three other parishes – St. Mary in Riverside, St. Hugh in Lyons and St. Pius X in Stickney – navigate Renew My Church, the Archdiocese of Chicago's comprehensive plan to restructure Catholic parishes.
Now in its fourth year, Renew My Church will by its end involve every parish in the diocese and reorder the archdiocesan landscape, resulting in far fewer parishes as congregations consolidate, with an eye toward strengthening ones that remain and making them financially viable.
Since 2018, the archdiocese has consolidated 100 parishes into just 26 new ones. In 2019, St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield and St. Louise de Marillac Parish in LaGrange Park were merged into a new entity subsequently named Holy Guardian Angels Parish.
Because the name wasn't made official until last November, parishioners of Holy Guardian Angels just celebrated the parish's first feast day on Oct. 2. The parish threw a celebration marking the occasion on Oct. 3, with a morning service project cleaning up Kiwanis Park in Brookfield and a 1.6-mile procession that afternoon from St. Barbara Church to St. Louise Church.
"Things are not going to be quite the same," said Father Tom May, pastor of St. Mary Church.
Possible scenarios released
In late September, parishioners at the four churches received possible "scenarios" laying out how each might or might not be consolidated with the others.
St. Mary Church, based on the initial scenarios, appears to sit in a position of some advantage within the grouping.
Of the four parishes, St. Mary is the only one that meets diocesan benchmarks for things like weekend Mass attendance and annual operating revenue needed to exist as a standalone parish.
It's also the lone parish that operates a school, one that still has strong enrollment and is financially stable.
As a result, scenarios involving St. Mary would result in it becoming the new parish's administrative center and be designated the parish church.
In the first scenario, all four parishes would combine to form a new parish, all four campuses would continue to be used and St. Mary would be the administrative center and formally designated as the parish church.
The second scenario would combine St. Mary, Mater Christi and St. Hugh, with St. Pius being spun off into a group of Berwyn and Cicero parishes for further discernment.
The third scenario envisions two parishes resulting from realignment, one combining St. Mary and Mater Christi and the other combining St. Hugh and St. Pius.
But the scenarios could change, as soon as later this month, after the archdiocese conducted facilities surveys of each parish. The facilities report presently is being discussed by the combined group discernment team, which includes members of each parish. They met last week and are scheduled for another meeting Oct. 14.
"It's difficult to move on until we have those [facilities reports] in place," said May in a recent interview with the Landmark. "They will be a major part of the decision making."
Asked whether the parishes are playing on a level field, Mater Christi's pastor, Father Matthew Nemchausky, said each parish brings its own set of strengths to the table.
Mater Christi brings strong parish organizations such as its men's group, called the Holy Name Society, and an active Women's Guild, while St. Mary has a school, strong Mass attendance, solid facilities and a strong financial position.
"It's an equal playing field in some ways, but we do look at resources," Nemchausky said, referring to archdiocesan benchmarks such as 800 people attending weekend Masses, operating income of at least $750,000 annually and minimal facilities expenses.
"St. Mary's fills those aspects, but the others in the group struggle with one or all of those," Nemchausky said.
Longtime St. Mary's parishioner Jack Wiaduck said that until there's a clearer picture of the condition of the other parishes in the group, it's tough to know what a best possible realignment looks like.
"Each parish is vastly different and there's potential for an operating drag on a new consolidated parish purely from a business standpoint," Wiaduck said. "That's going to be what will eventually drive those decisions. I don't envy the bishop his job in this."
Once the final scenarios are confirmed, discernment teams from each parish will seek out input from parishioners and then write a report with a preferred scenarios that will be delivered in December to archdiocesan officials to review.
Sometime after Jan. 1, Cardinal Cupich will issue one or more decrees announcing the realignment. It could be one of the preferred scenario or it could be one they hadn't considered. And there's really no way to know until the cardinal issues his decree early in 2021.
The changes will become real next summer, when a pastor is chosen for the new parish or parishes and operations are consolidated.
Nemchausky, a young priest who was ordained in 2009 and was named Mater Christi's pastor in 2016, knows his job could be changing.
"I feel more comfortable than the staffs of the parishes. I will, all things considered, have a job," Nemchausky said, noting that some parish staffers are sure to lose their positions as a result of consolidation. "My heart goes out to them because of that fact."
A changing parish landscape
According to the Archdiocese of Chicago, Mass attendance has dropped by almost a third in the past 20 years and the total number of priests has dropped precipitously during the past 40 years. In 1975, there were about 1,260 diocesan priests in the Chicago area. By 2018, that number had fallen to 749.
In recent years the archdiocese has ordained fewer than 10 priests annually, unable to keep pace with the number of priests heading into retirement. With fewer priests to staff the parishes, fewer of the faithful contributing to the collections and the cost of maintaining parish buildings a constant drag, the old parish model has become unsustainable.
"It's probably important for the survival of the Catholic Church as a viable entity, realizing how so many things have changed," Wiaduck said of Renew My Church.
While Mater Christi Church may end up continuing as a house of worship for years to come, the loss of its status as an independent parish will be hard a hard pill to swallow.
When she was asked to be part of the Mater Christi Parish discernment team, Susan Storcel wasn't so sure.
"I had to discern a lot for myself, because I knew how hard this was going to be," Storcel said. "I sort of felt like I could help the parishioners understand why this had to happen."
Storcel says she's made peace with the inevitable change that will come next year, but that hasn't made it any easier.
"I've had some rough things in my 65 years, but this is one of the most difficult things I've had to do," she said. "I've come to accept that we're going to be a new parish, but my heart is still breaking."