Philadelphia Metropolis


Bare, Ruined Choirs

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The decision to allow the demolition of the Church of the Assumption at 11th and Spring Garden Streets made news last week, mostly because the church, built in 1845, is historically certified and has connections with two Catholic American saints: John Neumann and Katharine Drexel.

In a way, though, it wasn't news to those who follow the fortunes of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia.  Assumption is just one of 26 parish churches closed by the Archdiocese since 1990.

In 1990, Assumption - its official name is Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary - was one of 131 parishes in the city.  Today, there are 105 and, given two demographic trends, there surely will be fewer 10 years from now.


The first trend is the decline in number of Catholics in the city.  No one keeps official count, but the Archdiocese does catalogue "registered Catholics," people who sign up as members of a parish.  According to those numbers, there were 503,000 registered Catholics in Philadelphia in 1990. Today, there are fewer than 320,000.

The other trend is the decline in the number of priests. In 1990, there were 278 priests assigned to the city's 131 parishes - enough to have a pastor and one or two assistants in each parish.  Today, there are 150 priests to tend to 105 parishes.

Neither of these trends is likely to reverse. The lines will keep going down, as priests' age and pews empty.


Church of the Assumption, 1132 Spring Garden St.

Assumption No 2.jpgWith fewer parishioners, there is less taken in at the collection plate, which means less money to support the parish. Churches are lovely buildings, but they are a monster to maintain. If the roof leaks, if the 60-year-old furnace gives out, a pastor can blow hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs - money he generally does not have. There are already about dozen city parishes on life support, existing on financial aid from the Archdiocese

Some archdiocesan officials (speaking privately) have argued that Philadelphia has too many parishes, remnants of the days in the 19th Century when every neighborhood had a parish - and some had several: one for Poles, one for Irish, one for Italians, etc.

According to this argument, it is hard to justify assigning a priest to each of these small parishes, when there are parishes in the suburbs that are growing and don't have enough clergy to handle the large congregations.

To counter-balance that, archdiocesan officials are also aware of the hell they always catch whenever they try to close a parish or a school. What do you tell the parishioners who have gone to that city church their entire lives? Who had their children baptized there, educated there and married there? That we're sorry, but our priests are needed more in Chester County?

As a result, at least in this Archdiocese, there is little public conversation about these trends: what they mean, what to do, whether they can be changed.

There is simply a slow retreat, done as quietly as possible.


-- TF



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