There was a time when St. Louis, Missouri, was referred to as the “Rome of the West” due to its historical significance as the mother diocese to a large portion of the western United States and its great missionary zeal, hosting seminaries for Maryknollers, Jesuits, and Redemptorists, as well as a teaching college for religious sisters.
These seminaries exist no longer, having shuttered in the years after Vatican II; and in addition to these institutions and others like them, a litany of parishes were closed over the past few decades, many since the turn of this millennium. If they weren’t torn down, historic churches have been converted into homes, offices, theaters, and even—in the most noteworthy and creative example, perhaps—an indoor skatepark. St. Liborius Catholic Church, built in 1889 and closed in 1992, has now become known as “SK8 Liborius.”
Some, if not many, of these closures are easily justified. After all, St. Louis isn’t what it used to be, with its population shifting westward to a large degree, leaving the city and many of its historic churches in the dust, as it were. The population of the city of St. Louis has dropped to nearly a third of its 1950 population; St. Louis County, surrounding the city on its west, has seen its population more than double in that timeframe, and the population of St. Charles County, across the Missouri River to the west and north, has increased nearly fourteen-fold.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The archdiocese is today in the midst of its largest set of changes ever—a system-wide plan optimistically marketed as “All Things New” that will cut its parishes by more than half through mergers and closures. On Pentecost Sunday 2023, Catholics have been told to expect mergers and closures that will reduce the number of parishes from 178 to between 70 and 90, with average parish size increasing from 800 to 1,800 households. Those parents who have children in parish schools can expect similar changes, starting with the 2024-25 school year.
The reason is demographics, the archdiocese says. Fewer St. Louis Catholics are marrying, having children, having their children baptized, and sending them to Catholic schools. The Catholic population has declined from over 530,000 in 2000 to 490,000 in 2021. There were more than 7,000 baptisms in 2000, and that has dropped to under 4,000 in 2021. Only about 20 percent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass. There were about 300 active diocesan priests in 2000, and that number is expected to be cut to fewer than half that by 2025.
To plan its massive changes, the archdiocese has reached out to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which has led efforts like this elsewhere. It surveyed area Catholics, receiving about 70,000 responses. It says that its decisions are informed in part by the responses—as well as other means, such as focus groups and meetings with local business leaders.
At parish listening sessions held in October and November, the volunteer leaders were only able to accept comments and were not prepared to answer specific questions of any particular depth. In fact, Catholics have noted a reluctance to provide meaningful transparency; at least one group is planning to take the archdiocese to court and has secured civil and canon lawyers to assist.
My suburban parish in West St. Louis County currently serves 2,800 households and has over 370 students in its school. There have generally been more baptisms than funerals, and revenue has been above expenses—all good indicators of a sustainable parish.
A nearby parish, just over five miles away, has over 2,000 households and a school serving about 200 students. As with ours, revenues are above expenses, but its school has been on the decline, losing 29 percent of its enrollment over the past five years, compared to ours increasing by 25 percent.
As our parish prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023, all the proposed models would merge these two parishes into a larger one serving over 4,800 households—more than two and a half times what the archdiocese wants for its “average” parish size, and the largest merged parish in the archdiocese.
Left out of the discussion, to be determined by the archdiocese before its Pentecost announcement, is the mechanics of all this. In our case, neither parish campus is large enough to provide a church, school, offices, and meeting spaces required for a megaparish like this; and maintaining both sites, with services split between the two, as happens in so-called cluster parishes, would render all this upheaval generally meaningless. There are ways for parishes to share support services without mergers, just as our priests often travel around to fill in for Masses and other sacraments.
In a video offered by the archdiocese at the start of the listening sessions, the priest managing the process talks about not playing the “blame game” or arguing over the root of the problem; we are told we just need to address it with these changes being imposed. The problem is that while there are population shifts the Church needs to deal with, there are other challenges the Church needs to seriously address.
Given the dramatic population shift out of the City of St. Louis, the viability of the parishes in the city obviously would be a major cause for concern. The problem is that the real estate will sit on the market for years, virtually abandoned and uncared for. If the archdiocese surrenders these properties—some of which are quite historic for the local Church, like St. Mary of Victories, where Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos and Ven. Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty once preached, and which is slated for closure—it can only be seen as a capitulation and a loss of hope that the Church can one day regain the territory.
Beyond addressing westward demographic shifts, however, the archdiocese certainly needs to reckon with the overall trends and try to solve them not simply by closing or merging parishes but by realizing the real problem: the need to encourage young Catholics to marry, to have children, and to raise and educate them as Catholics—and the need to foster more vocations to the priesthood. Sadly, in today’s world, these problems are related because many Catholic parents are the obstacles themselves, not wanting their young men to become priests.
As part of its efforts to rethink the parochial schools, the archdiocese surveyed school families and found, not to anyone’s particular surprise, perhaps, a lack of devotion on the part of the vast majority of parents themselves, who seem to want more for their children than they want for themselves.
According to the survey, for example, 70 percent of Catholic school families do not attend Mass every Sunday, yet 74 percent of school parents want their children to attend Mass at school each week. Likewise, 70 percent of school parents go to confession rarely or never, although their children go to confession at school. Most parents (53 percent) want their children to receive reconciliation during Advent and Lent. More than a quarter want their children to attend reconciliation monthly.
Each October, the archdiocese tracks Mass attendance over three weekends, and this year’s attendance saw an increase; but the numbers are still below what was tracked before the pandemic—only 22.3 percent of registered Catholics attended Mass. In 2011, for example, attendance was at 32.1 percent.
In St. Louis, as everywhere else it seems, the Church is in retreat mode, surrendering ground to the advancing culture. It will not cease this self-exile until it stands up and responds directly and offers more of what so many people are truly seeking—if they only knew it!—a return to what makes the Catholic Faith loved: the beauty of its culture, the goodness of its saints, and the truth of its teachings. Here in the Rome of the West, the archdiocese wants large, nebulously-defined “vibrant” parishes that focus on evangelization. But until many more Catholics truly embrace the Faith they are called to pass along, how can they possibly be expected to make a difference?