St. John Vianney Church faces an uncertain future
St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, a towering cathedral in Allentown has "no chance to succeed," with a debt of some $2 million and a roof crumbling into the pews, according to a spokesman. Yet it's not officially slated to close.
"There's been no decision at this point" to close, said Father Ron Lengwin, of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. "We do know that the parish has many problems...Well over a million dollars in repairs are needed...There's no chance to succeed and yet the church knows there needs to be some presence there."
The church has already changed its presence in Allentown and neighboring communities in recent years. The church building now known as St. John Vianney was originally constructed as St. George in 1886 to serve German immigrants. In 1994, after urban population losses, the St. John Vianney parish was created when three other church buildings closed and merged together.
The story of declining and impoverished urban communities losing their churches, typically large cathedral-type structures that are costly to heat, cool, and repair, is being repeated across the Rust Belt. Three churches closed in Pittsburgh last year. The Archdiocese of New York last year announced the consolidation of nine parishes into one. In 2008, in Steubenville, Ohio, six parishes were merged into one.
The mergers have been blamed on several reasons: a decline in the number of priests, and church attendance, and financial struggles. He added that, at the same time, churches in growing communities like Cranberry and Washington are thriving.
"Fifty percent of the parishes in the city of Pittsburgh are in debt," Fr. Lengwin said, adding many urban parishioners are still donating at the same level of a dollar a week as they did in decades past. "Who's going to pay for the repairs?"
Lifelong parishioner and St. George graduate Ann Reynolds says she's "devastated" at the possibility St. John Vianney might close.
"What does it do for the small families coming up in the church? It has a great impact," Ms. Reynolds said.
She's also concerned about people at the other end of life, her senior citizen peers.
"This area is comprised mostly of older families, they don't drive," she said, explaining it would be difficult for them to get to Mass in another community, like Mount Washington.
Ms. Reynolds questioned how it is that the Pittsburgh Diocese can't help when its recent capital campaign raised double its goal--$230 million versus the goal of $125 million.
"All of that went to specific designated projects," Fr. Lengwin said.
He referred several questions about the situation back to St. John Vianney's pastor, Father Thomas Wilson. Previously, Fr. Wilson had a parish worker tell the South Pittsburgh Reporter he would not comment for this article.
At the Hilltop Alliance community organization, which distributes fresh produce at the church, executive director Aaron Sukenik expressed some frustration the diocese won't communicate with the neighbors openly about the potential for losing the church.
"We would like to be at the table as much as possible to mitigate the negative consequences," Mr. Sukenik said. "We have had no interaction, and we are looking for interaction with the diocese. We have talked to the pastor, who outlined the inevitable... but he can't provide much more information."
Mr. Sukenik added, "We really value our partnership with the food bank there....Probably combined with the food bank, we serve over 700-1,000 families per month."
If the parish closes, he said, "It's really important they acknowledge the importance (of food distribution) and hopefully consider keeping the parish center open."
The parish center is a more modern building adjacent to the church. Church offices are located there and it holds a chapel where daily Mass is held for parishioners. On a recent day, just 10 people attended.
Mr. Sukenik said in addition to the services, he has qualms about a massive abandoned piece of real estate in Allentown. In neighborhoods where buildings have been abandoned, often vandalism and drug activity follows.
"That church is a probably the most prominent part of Allentown's skyline, and it's really a cathedral more than a church," Mr. Sukenik said. "Given what we know it would cost to retrofit that building, we obviously have serious concern about what the future of that building holds."