By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Dioceses officials lay out reasons for closing SJV parish


With more than 120 people in attendance at a parish assembly held at St. Paul Monastery Retreat Center, Diocese of Pittsburgh officials explained why closing St. John Vianney Parish and church is a looming possibility.

Representing the diocese in the presentation were Regional Vicar Fr. Bob Guay and John Flaherty, secretary for parish life. Opening and closing the meeting was Fr. Thomas Wilson from St. John Vianney Parish.

Fr. Guay explained the parish assembly had several purposes: to provide relevant information on the future of the parish and the church buildings; clarify details related to the plan which was mailed out to registered parishioners last week; and, to seek feedback from parishioners on the plan.

Mr. Flaherty was more direct in his discussion, saying they were there to discuss closing the parish and dividing the members into surrounding parishes. A separate topic would be closing the church permanently as a house of worship.

"The two proposals have different thresholds of gravity and reason that have to be provided before the bishop can act on either one of them," he said.

The financial constraints are the most significant driver in relation to both of the proposals being made in regards to the parish and the church building he explained. Shifting demographics, not only in church membership, but in the general population of the city are also a consideration.

Expenses have outstripped revenue in the parish. In the last five years, revenue has been declining and has been unable to meet expenses. Revenue has been bolstered by bequests, but considering they are one-time and unpredictable, they can't be used for the operating budget, Mr. Flaherty continued.

The "meat and potatoes" of the revenue stream is the weekly offertory at Mass, which has been also been declining steadily for the last five years, he said.

When the parish was formed in 1994 by the consolidation of St. George, St. Henry, St. Canice and St. Joseph parishes, it began with a debt of $1.3 million. Each parish brought some debt to St. John Vianney, from a low of $6,000 to a high of $300,000. By 2001 the debt had grown by an additional $700,000 and now reaches in excess of $3 million. The good news, he said, is the parish hasn't had to borrow any more money since 2008.

"Since then when you look at the numbers, the parish has been able to work magic," he said. "Revenue verses expenses, when you look at the numbers."

The only significant payments against the debt have come through the sale of buildings. At the time of consolidation, there were more than 20 buildings in the parish. Currently, there are the St. John Vianney Church and Parish Center, the former St. Canice School and several smaller buildings in the cemetery.

The parish has also made smaller payments against the debt.

All of the St. John Vianney Parish buildings are in need of repairs to maintain basic structural integrity, Mr. Flaherty said. The total for all the building to make just needed repairs reaches $1.2 million. He said that amount could be reduced slightly by selling the former St. Canice School building, which is currently leased.

In discussing the general population of the parish's service area, he noted the number of people in all the neighborhoods has dropped five percent over the last five years. However, during the same time period, the parish's registration has dropped 43 percent and Mass attendance is down 29 percent.

"It's important to note, when we look at the decline of the registration is much more dramatic than the rate of decline of offertory, even though there is a decline. Which says the people who still are registered and active are very loyal and very generous," Mr. Flaherty said. "It's just there's not enough of them to sustain the costs."

Unfortunately, he explained, what's happening at St. John Vianney, with few exceptions, is happening in many of the parishes throughout the six counties making up the Pittsburgh Diocese. There are fewer people in the counties, fewer people registered as parish members and fewer people going to Mass.

Concerning St. John Vianney, 39 percent of its members currently do not live within the parish boundaries. Although living in other areas, the people have chosen to belong to the parish for historical, ethnic or a variety of other reasons.

Mr. Flaherty said from a planning standpoint, having so many out of parish members makes it tenuous. As their lives and circumstances change, the chance becomes greater they will leave the parish.

Another statistic they looked at was the number of deaths and number of baptisms each year. Over the last several years, St. John Vianney Parish has been averaging about 35 deaths a year, but they have only been adding about a dozen baptisms per year over the same period.

"You're losing people through death faster than you're gaining new members," Mr. Flaherty said.

Parishioners were asked to present feedback in the form of filling out questionnaires and asking questions or making statements. Only one person per table was permitted to speak until every table in the hall had an opportunity and then the floor was opened for discussion.

Several parishioners expressed the desire for the Pittsburgh Diocese to "step up" and help St. John Vianney in its time of need.

Others were concerned for the "historic" status of "St. George Church" and what will happen to the building if they start removing things from the church.

To a specific question about what would happen to the cemetery, Mr. Flaherty said it would become part of another parish's territory and that parish would be responsible.

"The church has a perpetual obligation to parish cemeteries, which is why we require a perpetual care fund," he said.

A women asked if the cemetery could become part of the Catholic Cemeteries Association, like Northside Catholic or St. Mary's in Lawrenceville, so perpetual care would be guaranteed.

Several parishioners complained there were only two proposals discussed that afternoon: closing the parish and closing the church. They wanted to know if there were any options for keeping the parish and the church open.

Mr. Flaherty said their questions and comments would be taken back and considered as part of the feedback they were requesting.

A parishioner suggested selling the Parish Center and using the proceeds to make the needed repairs to the church and keep the church open.

A third generation parishioner then presented his own five-point "Plan B" for saving the church:

First. Establish St. John Vianney as a worship site of St. Mary of the Mount Parish.

Second. Use Church Alive funds committed by the parishioners to get the repairs to the masonry and roof started. Additional funds from the sale of the Parish Center could also be used to stabilize the church.

In addition, he proposed using social media to generate a funding campaign from former parishioners located throughout the country.

Third. With new leadership and a plan for the future, parishioners who have been generous in the past would have a reason to continuing giving to keep their church.

Fourth. He said the majority of the St. John Vianney debt was from supporting catholic schools. He proposes spreading the debt throughout the diocese instead of burdening the parishes which will take on the St. John Vianney territory.

Fifth. The church is missing the boat on attendance, especially where it concern youth, he said. Better outreach and use of social media could be used to build the church membership.

Another parishioner had a question about the interest being paid on the parish's $3.2 million debt. Where is the interest going that is paid, he questioned.

Mr. Flaherty explained in the diocese there is the Parish Deposit Loan Fund, a kind of credit union all 200 parishes in the diocese belong to. When a parish needs to borrow for capital improvement, repairs or other uses, they are able to go to the loan fund, like a bank, for the money. And, like a bank, a borrowing parish pays interest on the loan.

In addition, if parishes have excess money, it also goes into the loan fund and they are paid interest on their balances.

Chuck Mazur, business manager for St. John Vianney Parish, would later add the diocese hasn't required the parish to pay interest on its outstanding loan balance for "seven or eight years." The parish has also been absolved from contributing to the diocese for Catholic schools, for "some time."

Mr. Mazur said some of the other ways the diocese has helped the parish out included by conducting the engineering studies for the church, the Parish Center and the St. Canice School building and not requiring insurance payments for the last four months.

He explained the parish has been able to sell most of the unused buildings, realizing about $1 million in proceeds and had bequests of over $200,000, "and that kept us going for a couple of years."

"At this point, there's nothing else out there that we can see," he added.

Mr. Mazur projected for every month going forward the parish would have a shortfall of $20,000.

A parishioner, who has been part of the church for 77 years and has earned degrees in engineering and professional certifications in several fields, spoke on the deteriorating condition of the parish buildings.

"I've been in all the crawl spaces, in the bell towers. I know what's going on and I can see today what the building looks like and all I can say is, from any standpoint of view, liturgical, practical, business or money, that building has seen its day," he said.

"It's time to move on, save the artifacts and let's use our money, what we have, for the future and not on a 110 year old building which is on the verge, from an engineering point of view and not today, but if something isn't done in our lifetime we will see parts of that building fall in."

Several people expressed concerns for the senior citizens in the neighborhood and their challenges in attending Mass in another church in another neighborhood.

Others suggested instead of closing the church and dividing up the parish, to look for a smaller church within the current parish territory and hold services there.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Fr. Guay said input from the meeting and surveys sent to parishioners and distributed during the meeting would be compiled reviewed. Bishop Zubik and the receiving parishes, Prince of Peace, St. Basil and St. Mary of the Mount, would then be updated.

After the Bishop decides how to proceed, the Pastorial and Finance councils and the parish pastor will have to formally petition to close the church building and/or parish, if that is the path that is chosen. He said parishioners would be kept informed during the process.

Following a formal petition to close the parish, there is a three step diocesan review that could take place as early as September. At the earliest, a decision to close the parish or the church wouldn't come before October.

Fr. Guay said it's all tentative and the Bishop could decide to "go a different avenue here."


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