Boston Closures

Fr. Peter J. Daly

June 2, 2004

Parish Diary


            Back in the 1950s, when the Archdiocese of Boston had more vocations to the priesthood than they could use, Cardinal Cushing started the St. James Society. It sent priests from Boston to underserved parts of Latin America. Eventually priests from other parts of the U.S. joined the Society. Over the years it has done much good work. It has kept parishes going that might otherwise have died for lack of the sacraments and clergy.

            Maybe now is the time for a St. James Society in reverse.

Perhaps a new society of priests and permanent deacons could come to the aid of Church of Boston and other struggling churches across North America.


            On May 25, the Archdiocese of Boston announced that it was closing 65 of its 357 parishes. That is nearly a fifth of the parishes in the Archdiocese. These parishes had a weekly mass attendance totaling more than 25,000 souls, according to the attendance figures posted on the Archdiocese’s own web site. These are active Catholics, not just people carried on the books.

            These 65 parish closures are added to more than 55 parishes closed by Boston between 1985 and 2003. The Archdiocese of Boston has now closed more churches than many dioceses have altogether.

Some of the closures could not be avoided. They are the inevitable outcome of a decline in mass attendance and a long-term movement of Catholics away from older established parishes to remote suburbs.

            While some parishes probably could not be saved, there were several that are vibrant communities; financially solvent and spiritually alive. Three of the closed parishes listed more than 1,000 people at Sunday mass. Some had 60 funerals and as many as 100 baptisms. In some dioceses these would be considered showcase parishes. These are communities that should not be lost.

            The May announcement was a staggering blow to a church already reeling from the child abuse scandal. That scandal surfaced hundreds of victims. This past year the Archdiocese reached an 85 million dollar settlement with several hundred victims. 

But one of the principal reasons given by Archbishop Sean O’Malley for the closures was not the scandal, but the shortage of priests to serve all 357 parishes.

Boston lists 505 active diocesan priests in the Official Catholic Directory for 2003.  There were 715 religious order priests, including ones teaching at universities, colleges and high schools.

According to the Associated Press, 130 of Boston’s active pastors are over the age of 70. The median age of priests in Boston is about 60. This year Boston ordained only seven men to the priesthood. In ten years there will be more retired priests than active priests.

Clearly there is a need, in places like Boston, to send in reinforcements. Why? Because we want to keep the church alive.

In the 19th century hundreds of Irish railroad workers fell away from the Catholic Church in the rural South where they found no priests and no parishes. Without the sacramental life of the church, they turned to the spiritual sustenance they could find in evangelical churches. The same thing could happen today.

            Why couldn’t we develop some system of assistance, especially with permanent deacons. We now have more than 14,000 deacons nation-wide. We ordain many more each year.

They could be sent in as parish administrators. They can conduct Eucharistic services, preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funerals. As a temporary expedient, viable parishes could be kept alive until some new source of priests could be found.

            It is a tragedy to loose a parish. It is an even greater tragedy to loose souls because there is no one to minister to them. It is time for us to think anew. Boston is not an isolated case.