By: Fr. John Jasica
ARE THERE ANY BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS?
I know that there are some parishioners waiting for a big announcement regarding our family of parishes—especially about church closures. To answer that question—I would say that the big announcement has already come with Bishop Fabbro’s letter to us on the First Sunday of Advent.
Bishop Fabbro has decided that St. Joseph Church will remain open (for historical, architectural and pastoral reasons) along with the Spirit & Life Centre, becoming the central hub for our ministries, programs and outreach to the city of Chatham. He has asked all of us to work together as one family seeking to embrace our IGNITE THE MISSION pastoral plan of forming disciples who reach out to all.
WHAT ABOUT CHURCH CLOSURES?
Bishop Fabbro also addresses church closures for all the families of parishes in the diocese when he said in the letter to the people of Chatham, “During my visit with you, I pointed out that the Diocese now has a policy which spells out the process that must be undertaken if any Family of Parishes anticipates the closure of a parish or church.” The diocesan policy guides any decisions about closures. I hope to offer some clarity regarding this for our own Chatham Catholic Family of Parishes.
(1) Who are we as a family of parishes?
Our Chatham Catholic Family of Parishes is made up of four parishes (St. Agnes, Blessed Sacrament, St. Joseph & St. Ursula) and one Catholic community (Our Lady of Victory Polish Catholic Community). Our Lady of Victory Parish was suppressed (no longer a parish under Church law) in a decree by Bishop Fabbro effective June 30, 2007 during the time of parish reorganization in the diocese. I share this detail as a reminder for those who were not aware of this decision. There have been a number of parishes in the diocese that have been suppressed and made into Catholic communities over the last many years.
(2) Canon Law and Diocesan Policy
There are two policies that guide us when we discuss church closures. Canon Law (Church law) and our diocesan policy for church closures. Both take the closure of any church or parish seriously—and doesn’t take place unless completely necessary. Canon Law tells us that the bishop alone is the one who decides (Canon #1222 ss#1) but he must consult the Council of Priests (Canon #1222 ss#2) and rightfully so the people that are affected (Canon #50).
The Diocese of London Closure Policy takes into account Canon Law and requires an honest review of the spiritual life (How many are involved in sacramental preparation? What is the church attendance at Masses? How many funerals are celebrated? Is there an RCIA program welcoming new Catholics?), pastoral vitality (Is there a pastoral plan? Are there active ministries/programs? Is there outreach to those in need?) financial stability (Can the parish pay their bills? Are there regular deficits? Are there financial resources available? What are the conditions of the parish buildings?), and demographical information (Is there a declining number of parishioners? What are the future trends/ data from municipal/regional government?)
(3) Are we closing any churches? Not right now
In the late fall of 2023, after extensive discussion/analysis with Pastoral Council, Finance Committee, family staff and diocesan leadership, the only church in our family that met the threshold for closure was St. Agnes Parish. The only reason for this was the financial challenges over the last number of years that liquidated any of the last Capital Reserve Funds ($185,000 was taken from this fund since July 2018 to cover operating expenses) leaving the parish with only around $30,000 in total cash assets prior to Christmas. We expected continued decline for the months ahead. With heavy and reluctant hearts, the Pastoral Council and Finance Committee unanimously voted to began the process with the diocese for the closure of St. Agnes Parish. But then things changed.
(4) One step at a time—we continue to move ahead
As I said, Canon Law and the diocesan policy for closure of parishes and churches sees closure as a last resort. Following our Christmas celebrations and looking at our year end 2023 financial totals (I will be publishing my annual summary in a couple of weeks), we noticed a surprising increase in financial donations at all our churches—including St. Agnes. As a family of parishes we had an overall deficit of $207 thousand in 2022 but have managed an overall surplus of $27 thousand in 2023. St. Agnes had a 14% increase in their Thanksgiving Appeal and a 38% increase in the Christmas collection versus 2022.
With signs of a financial trend upwards for all the churches in the family and with the pastoral plan taking root and growing everyday—I recommended to Pastoral Council and Finance Committee last week that for the time being, St. Agnes Parish does not meet the threshold for closure and that we need to delay any process until a further review in the fall of 2024. They unanimously agreed and I have informed diocesan leadership of the need to pause the process. So for now, we continue with our pastoral plan with our five churches continuing to seek your support and involvement…
(Stay tuned for more in next weekend’s bulletin)