- The Church in the Changing City: Parochial Restructuring in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in Historical Perspective
On April 2, 1993, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced its decision to restructure parishes in North Philadelphia and the city of Chester. Responding to decades of demographic change and the mounting financial burden of maintaining aging church buildings, the archdiocese determined that the dense concentration of parishes in these two communities was no longer sustainable. Intended to encourage the “renewed evangelization of the Catholic people” in North Philadelphia and Chester, the restructuring plan called for the closure of sixteen parishes, the territorial expansion of five others, and the creation of two new parishes at the site of two of the closed parishes.1
The decision stunned the local Catholic community. As memories of baptisms, weddings, and communal celebrations came flooding back, those who had devoted their time and hard-earned money to build and sustain these parishes felt an overwhelming sense of betrayal by church leaders. Urban activists charged that the church was abandoning the inner city, removing its presence from two of the region’s poorest communities. Battered by the effects of post-industrial economic decline, these once vibrant working class communities were crippled by job and population loss, increasing crime rates, and political marginalization. Amid these struggles, Catholics parishes anchored neighborhoods, providing institutional stability and offering essential social services to local communities.
The reaction was understandable. Even though a handful of parishes in Philadelphia had been closed during the 1970s and 1980s, the 1993 restructuring was the first time the archdiocese had closed parishes on such a large scale and in such a [End Page 73] concentrated geographic area.2 The decision called attention to the state of urban ministry and forced Catholics to consider the future viability of their vast institutional network in a way that earlier actions had not. It also raised questions about how restructuring was implemented. Those affected by the parish closings argued that they had no discernable role in the decision-making process, and criticized the archdiocese for its heavy-handed approach to parochial restructuring. In the wake of public outcry, the archdiocese implemented a new system of “cluster pastoral planning,” which obliged all parishes to engage in ongoing strategic planning. The plan promised to decentralize the decision-making process by vesting more authority in local parish councils and regional parish clusters. From outward appearances, this change signaled a fundamental shift in archdiocesan policy, redistributing power in the planning process from the archdiocese to the parishes.
Moving beyond standard narratives of protest, this article situates parish closings in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia within a larger historical context. It offers a comparison not only with other Catholic dioceses but also with other religious communities in Philadelphia who faced their own earlier struggle with congregational decline and denominational planning. When viewed within this larger framework, patterns emerge that might otherwise go undetected. By examining the changing approach towards and rationale for church closings and parochial restructuring, this study reveals a recurring tension between centralized decision-making and the need for comprehensive planning on the one hand, and parochial autonomy and a respect for community self-determination on the other.
The tension is unavoidable, no matter the approach taken towards restructuring. In determining a course of action, church officials and local congregations have had to choose policies that fall somewhere between those two poles, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of that position. Parochial restructuring by sudden and swift diocesan fiat has proven an untenable strategy, even if it enables church officials to avoid prolonging a difficult and contentious process. This tactic creates needless rancor, alienates those affected by restructuring, and fosters distrust between church leaders and local communities. Greater consultation and parochial involvement in planning decisions offers a more amicable approach. Yet those who demand a greater role for the laity and local parish communities in the restructuring process often fail to recognize the distinct benefits that centralized decision making has historically offered the Catholic community, not only during periods of institutional growth, but also during the times of contraction. Centralized diocesan authority has allowed the Catholic Church to redirect energies and strategically [End Page 74] invest resources...