April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Church clusters see changes ahead

Cleveland diocese plan will result in closures and mergers, but area parishes focus on faith

ELYRIA — Twenty-two years ago, Father Frank Kosem walked into St. Jude Church to a congregation of about 1,500 families.
He knew things could change and, by 2000, they did. The parish size peaked to a bustling 2,300 families.
But just seven years later, that growth has stalled — there now are 200 fewer families at the church on Poplar Street.
For many, it is just a sign of the times, but when churches start losing members at the very same time the Cleveland Catholic Diocese is struggling to revitalize, a drop in parish membership could be seen as a weakness.
“But we’re holding our own,” Kosem said. “We’re not growing, but we have a strong school that we are very proud of.”
In the coming months, Catholic churches hoping to stay open will be highlighting their positives as they work to fulfill the directives of phase two of the diocese’s Vibrant Parish Life plan.
The 33 Lorain County churches that are part of the diocese are separated demographically into nine clusters with two to seven churches in each cluster. In Elyria, the plan calls for reducing a cluster of five to just three parishes and three priests by July 1, 2010.
The three clusters containing the Lorain and Elyria churches are the only ones that have been told they must downsize. The diocese proposes closing eight of the 17 churches in those clusters.
Lorain and Elyria join Cleveland and Akron as the urban areas that will be hardest hit because the realignment is based, among other things, on population shifts.
Most other cities in Lorain County appear to have been spared with the exception of a cluster containing four churches — St. Joseph in Amherst, Sacred Heart in Oberlin, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in South Amherst and St. Patrick in Wellington — that was told it will have to share three priests.
For those clusters in which closings are inevitable, there is no word on which churches will be lost as the strengths and weaknesses of the group will be assessed before a recommendation is made next year to Bishop Richard Lennon.
Kosem said it will not be an easy task for the group that includes St. Agnes, Holy Cross, St. Jude, St. Mary and Sacred Heart of Jesus.
St. Jude and St. Mary remain the largest of the group. But in Lennon’s plan, size won’t necessarily save them. It’s a fact that neither worries nor comforts Kosem.
“We have a strong community base, and I would definitely become an advocate for keeping us open, but if a better plan is proposed, I will do what is best for the church,” he said.
Likewise, the other three churches will not go on the chopping block despite individual circumstances that have left all in precarious situations.
St. Agnes’ resident priest is on a medical leave after a double knee surgery. The priest shortage in the diocese has meant Sacred Heart has gone without a priest for some time. At Holy Cross, the smallest of the Elyria churches, the congregation of the West Avenue church is being served by a minister from Lorain.
The parish has seen its size decrease from 212 families in 2002 to just 125 today.
Actually, the entire cluster, like many other groups in the diocese, has seen its share of decline.
In the cluster, the total number of parish households has decreased by 16 percent since 2000 to 4,351 families in 2006. Likewise, the total mass attendance in the cluster decreased by 34 percent over 10 years to 2,821 in 2006, and by 24 percent since 2000.
Yet if you ask Kosem, this is not the time to dwell on numbers but to find a way to evolve into a stronger church.
“I’m very exciting about the paradigm change, and this is probably way overdue,” Kosem said. “It’s time to look at the church from a different perspective. We have to stop the mentality that this is my parish, but embrace it as our church. We can complement each other without competing with one another.”
As such, in the coming weeks, five representatives from each of Elyria’s five Catholic churches will meet for the first time to discuss the clustering plan. It will be the first time all the involved players will gather to listen, share and offer suggestions as to what should happen next.
“This is about more than just numbers and who and when,” Kosem said. “The whole process will be life-changing.”
And, to quiet naysayers who liken the change to the downfall of the church, Kosem uses a little anecdote about Catholic school sports to draw a parallel connection.
When he arrived in 1985, St. Jude and St. Mary schools enjoyed a heated rivalry. Yet, it wasn’t until the two schools joined forced did they see their wins increase.
“We became champions in the diocese when we learned to work together,’’ Kosem said. “We become stronger together and learned we can do better as one.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.