September 2, 2014

Elyria
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Priest’s role in downsizing takes faith

ELYRIA — Father Charles Diedrick made his way back home in August — returning to St. Mary’s in Elyria, the same church where he attended school and where he previously had served as the church leader.But this time around, Diedrick is faced with an arduous task: Overseeing a downsizing project in which five Catholic churches in Elyria will be merged into two parishes as part of a larger consolidation effort by the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.

There simply are not enough people or resources to keep them all open, he said.

JASON MILLER/CHRONICLE
The Rev. Charlie Diedrick leads the elementary school’s first Mass of the school year at St. Mary’s Church in Elyria.

“It’s an urban problem. You see the people struggling — all the houses up for sale, the jobs are exiting the area,” Diedrick said. “You have a lot of people knocking on the door looking for assistance.”

Also, the demographics within churches are continually showing a decrease in youth attendance, which threatens the future of the church.

“It’s the malaise of our time,” Diedrick said. “The younger generation is not as attracted to mainline religion. They would still call themselves Catholic, but they don’t see that as active participation.”

The consolidation is expected to take about two years, and Diedrick said he realizes it will be challenging to transform the separate parishes into a unified one.

“How do you incorporate — break down those divisions — so that everyone feels like one community?” he asked. “Parish life is about community. I see that as my vision for the parish — to develop it into a parish family.”

One of seven children in his family, Diedrick grew up on a farm in Elyria. He attended St. Mary’s Catholic School through eighth grade, then enrolled in Borromeo Seminary High School and College in Wickliffe.

“I always said I got my vocation because I hated milking cows,” Diedrick said, joking before explaining that his family’s religious beliefs made it seem only natural for him to enter the priesthood.

Upon completing his studies at Borromeo, Diedrick was selected to do his postgraduate studies at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained in June 1978.

During his career, Diedrick has served with several different parishes: St Paul’s in Akron, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Wickliffe and St. Barnabus in Northfield. He also served at St Mary’s from 1988 to 1993.

He said it was difficult to leave St. Barnabus, where he had served for 14 years, to come to St. Mary’s. After that length of time, the parishioners were like family to him, he said.

“I think it’s part of life – there’s dying and there’s rising. Jesus said, ‘We have to go to the next town,’ and there are those moments in our lives,’” Diederick said.

He returned to St. Mary’s on Aug. 1, where he hopes to stay until his retirement in about 15 years.

“I think this is where God wants me to be,” he said.

In addition to the consolidation effort, other challenges were awaiting Diedrick. St. Mary’s School is struggling financially because of a drastic decrease in enrollment. Diedrick estimated that was a student at the school, there were 60 or 70 students in each grade level, but now there are classes with only 17 students.

Diedrick doesn’t intend to close the school, but he does want to find a way to make it financially viable, he said. Currently, 40 percent of the church income goes to the school, Diedrick said, so finding alternative sources of funding, as well as increasing enrollment, are on his to-do list.

“Financial resources are certainly strapped because of the school. If we’re going to keep it going, we have some serious financial issues to deal with,” he said.

Diedrick’s goals for his home church go beyond administrative.

The church, Diedrick said, must adapt to the changing society to stay relevant.

It needs to start “trying to enter into a dialogue with the modern world and speaking that language” rather than “than trying to pull up an old medieval concept and foist it upon them,” he said.

As a pastor, he said, he feels called to a “ministry of reconciliation,” leading people to closer relationships with both God and each other. He likens his walk of faith to that of Mother Teresa, who openly admitted to having moments of doubt.

“That’s what faith is all about,” Diedrick explained. “I don’t think it’s having all the answers. Sometimes it’s that certitude of Christianity that I find disturbing. It’s almost scandalous at times. Faith is a leap in the dark. If you’re not having those moments when you say, ‘Where are you, God?’ then your faith isn’t growing.”

Contact Dale Sheffield by calling 329-7155 or metro@chroniclet.com.