New Orleans plans to downsize Catholic churches

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Archbishop Alfred Hughes is asking his Catholic flock, including those far from the flood zone, to prepare for a reorganization of Catholic life befitting a church deeply damaged bybHurricane Katrina.

In a letter read from nearly 140 pulpits at weekend Masses, Hughes characterized the 215-year-old Archdiocese of New Orleans as a "missionary diocese" after Hurricane Katrina. He said "all sectors will share in some of the sacrifices involved" in a massive restructuring plan to be unveiled Wednesday (April 9).

Hughes offered no hint of which churches might be affected, but said one new parish will be created, some will be merged, some closed and others reduced to mission status.

No more Catholic schools will reopen "at this time," he said.

At the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church on Saturday, a representative of the Holy Cross fathers told parishioners that his religious order must leave the congregation it founded 129 years ago because it no longer has the priests to staff it.

"We do not have the vocations we used to have," the Rev. Tom Chambers told about 75 older parishioners. "If we could have stayed, we would have stayed."

Sacred Heart's 84-year-old church, rectory and former school flooded badly after Hurricane Katrina. None has reopened since, and parishioners who returned to the city were asked to worship at a nearby parish.
Across the archdiocese, about two dozen churches are in similar situations: They are open in name only, their damaged church and school buildings shuttered and their parishioners attending designated neighboring parishes until the permanent recovery plan is announced.

Last fall, church planners asked pastors and their lay advisory councils to measure the health of their parishes and to consider their futures for the next few years in the context of their larger neighborhoods.

The archdiocese must chart a course through a post-Katrina landscape, with 20 percent of the region's 491,000 Catholics still gone, some neighborhoods thinly populated and $120 million in uninsured flood losses to churches, schools and other buildings.

Moreover, archdiocesan officials said the church now must come to grips with a steadily dwindling corps of priests; church officials said they expect during the next five years to lose 18 priests from a corps of 136.

"We will move forward together with fewer priests, fewer churches, fewer schools, but, hopefully, with a greater evangelizing spirits," Hughes said in his letter.

-- Bruce Nolan


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