'Rearranging' of local Catholic churches under way

Waterford - Faced with declining church attendance and aging priests, the Diocese of Norwich Monday began its eight-month study of possible consolidation of services and facilities in the New London deanery, a conference of 13 parishes along the shoreline from East Lyme to the Rhode Island border.

The study started with an informational session Monday attended by roughly 200 people at St. Paul in Chains Church in Waterford.

The deanery plans to form committees to study sharing priests and pastors as well as other ministerial services, such as education and events.

According to Sister Elissa Rinere, who is overseeing the study and led the talk at St. Paul, committee members should also have a "broad view" of the state of global Catholicism and take into account such things as population shifts and church attendance worldwide.

Plans call for a report to be filed with Bishop Michael R. Cote in June 2012.

"We're putting one toe into the waters of inconvenience," Rinere said of possible coming changes. "We're not going to lose anything; we're doing some rearranging."

There are 49 Masses taking place in the New London deanery within 20 minutes of one anotherer each Sunday, Rinere said. Average Mass attendance at each church in the deanery is between 180 and 185, she said.

That is highly uncommon in most Catholic parishes, Rinere said.

"This is luxurious Catholicism," she said.

Rinere said there is no current shortage of priests in southeastern Connecticut, but 16 priests in the diocese are either approaching the retirement age of 75 or are already past it.

Rinere said four priests in the diocese will be ordained in the coming months.

According to diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello, the diocese began the deanerywide studies in 2006. In that year, a study in the rural Putnam deanery resulted in the closure of two chapels. No parishes were closed.

Reports from the Middletown and Norwich deaneries were recently submitted to Cote's office.

Strammiello said the diocese does not plan on closing parishes and will seek to preserve the identity of each church community.

Sandy Schneider, a parishioner for 12 years at Our Lady of Lourdes in Gales Ferry, said she was initially concerned that her church would lose its sense of community but felt reassured following the meeting.

"We have to rethink things," Schneider said.

Deidre Toole, who attends St. Michael's in Pawcatuck, said she was looking forward to interparish consolidation efforts, as it would be an opportunity for different communities to work together.

Toole was unconcerned about the prospect of driving a few extra miles to get to Mass.

"The days of the horse and buggy are over," Toole said.

The diocese will hold a similar session for the Old Saybrook deanery at 7 p.m. today at St. Joseph's in Chester.

s.chupaska@theday.com

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