The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend plans to merge three Fort Wayne-area parishes with larger parishes and might consolidate two more to build a new church and school in the Huntertown area, according to a long-awaited report released Wednesday on the future of the diocese's 80 congregations.
Prompted in part by Bishop John M. D'Arcy's pending retirement, the report recommends changes in 31 parishes across northern Indiana. It was the product of a year of deliberation by a committee of priests.
The bishop accepted the report's recommendations that St. Mary in Decatur eventually absorb St. Mary in Geneva and that Sacred Heart in Warsaw absorb St. Francis Xavier in Pierceton. D'Arcy also accepted a recommendation to place St. Mary's in Fort Wayne under the jurisdiction of the city's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
But a Sunday Mass would continue to be celebrated at St. Mary's, which also houses a soup kitchen and a day hospitality center, the Ave Maria House, for the homeless.
Those programs will continue under the direction of the cathedral, D'Arcy said by phone Wednesday.
"It is recommended strongly that all cathedrals have an evident apostolate for the poor, so that fits in very well with the cathedral," he said. An apostolate is a sanctioned church mission program.
St. John Bosco in Churubusco and Immaculate Conception in Edge are also slated for eventual merger if the Huntertown church is built. Those mergers, unlike the others, do not appear imminent, because fundraising plans for the new church "should wait until the economy is stabilized," according to the report.
The new church is planned for land the diocese owns adjacent to Cedar Canyon Road. Its congregation also would include some parishioners of the bustling St. Vincent DePaul parish in north Fort Wayne, which serves about 3,000 families.
The Geneva and Pierceton congregations are small churches that have about 100 and 150 families, respectively. Pierceton has had a priest serving part time. Geneva's priest, the Rev. Joseph Bosco Perera, is Sri Lankan, and the congregation will continue as long as he and his superiors are willing, D'Arcy said.
In the report, D'Arcy, who has headed the diocese for 24 years, writes that he felt a responsibility to confront the issue of realigning parishes before his successor is named.
When he turned 75 in August 2007, the bishop submitted a retirement letter to Pope Benedict XVI as required by church law. D'Arcy has heard nothing since, but word could come as soon as the end of this year, according to Vincent LaBarbera, diocesan spokesman.
"The adjustment faced by a new bishop is difficult enough without having to address the merging or closing of parishes," D'Arcy wrote.
"It is incumbent upon me, especially given my knowledge of the diocese, to face what must be done by at least initiating those changes that need to be made for the better pastoral care of our people, and not leave such difficult decisions to the new bishop."
D'Arcy said Wednesday he tried to avoid parish closures, and he stressed the proposed changes are subject to further consultation and will not come all at one time.
"You have to balance several concepts. One is the proper distribution of priests. When you have five or six baptisms in some parishes and you have some with 80, and each has one priest, you're not a good bishop if you don't address that," he said.
"On the other hand, small rural parishes and urban ones that have had changes in their neighborhoods have a hold on people's hearts, and it's very emotional having to close a parish."
Several parishes appear to have been given reprieves. Other churches will continue to have Mass celebrated weekly or monthly, while others will see only pastoral changes.
Shortage of priests?
In the report, D'Arcy points out that while there are now 16 men studying to be priests in the diocese, they may not be enough to staff all churches in coming years.
Eleven diocesan parishes are now staffed by priests from foreign countries who are not "incardinated," or officially and permanently linked to the diocese, and there are other priests serving in the diocese who are not incardinated because they belong to domestic orders.
These priests' superiors, not the bishop, have ultimate control over their placements.
The report's recommendations would release "four or five" diocesan priests and four or five foreign priests, if their superiors allow them to stay on, for work in other parishes, the bishop concludes.
D'Arcy is one of 11 American Roman Catholic bishops or archbishops who has reached retirement age and continues to serve.
The pope has no deadline before he must act on D'Arcy's retirement letter. The pope need not accept it, and he also could ask the bishop to remain until a successor is found.
A successor could be chosen from among the ranks of bishops and auxiliary bishops, or a priest inside or outside the diocese could be elevated, according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
American bishops are generally chosen from among the ranks of American clergy, she said.
See it yourself
To read Bishop John M. D'Arcy's decision in full, including details about why they were made, you can find it verbatim at The Scoop.