COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Catholic Diocese of Columbus will be home to 15 fewer parishes over the upcoming years after a deep-dive look into its 155-year-old organization signaled the need for a shake-up.

For the first time in decades, the diocese on Wednesday released a “pastoral plan” to overhaul the structure of its 105 parishes that span across 23 counties in Ohio – including the merging or closure of dozens of churches – in response to shifting demographics, a dwindling priesthood, aging infrastructure and budgetary challenges, Bishop Earl K. Fernandes said in an interview with NBC4.

“The situation is not just changing; it has fundamentally changed,” Fernandes said. “And unless we embrace that reality, we’ll never come up with a good solution.”

The blueprint, nicknamed “Real Presence, Real Future,” is a culmination of a two-year study spearheaded by then-Bishop Robert Brennan into the needs of an evolving diocese. When Fernandes assumed the role last May, he continued the work with a planning committee made up of priests, deacons and lay people to make recommendations for the make-up of the church.

“We realize that a church isn’t the same thing as a business, and so you have to see what the Gospel has to say and listen also to what the people of faith are saying,” he said. “And then eventually, though, you have to make a choice.”

A total of 15 churches – including eight from Columbus – will start the process of closing down July 1, according to the diocese, although some may still remain open for over a year. At one point, the Bishop was considering closing 32 churches. Those 15 churches are:

  • Corpus Christi (Columbus)
  • Church of Atonement (Crooksville)
  • Holy Rosary & St. John Catholic Church (Columbus)
  • Parroquia Santa Cruz (Columbus)
  • Ss. Peter and Paul (Glenmont)
  • St. Anthony (Columbus)
  • St. Bernard (Corning)
  • St. Francis de Sales (Newcomerstown)
  • St. Ladislas (Columbus)
  • St. Mark (Lancaster)
  • St. Mary (Bremen)
  • St. Mary (Groveport)
  • St. Matthias (Columbus)
  • St. Philip the Apostle (Columbus)
  • Our Lady of Miraculous Medal (Columbus)

Two K-8 schools, Ss. Peter and Paul in Wellston and St. Anthony in Columbus, will also shut down, the diocese said in its recommendations.

As some churches prepare to close, others are preparing for an influx of parishioners who seek a new place of worship. For instance, on the South Side of Columbus, two churches – Corpus Christi and St. Ladislas – will close and their parishioners will be solidified under one St. Mary’s parish in the German Village neighborhood.

Shifting demographics

Nationwide, Christian churches are rapidly losing parishioners, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2021, self-identified Christians made up 63% of the U.S. population, a drop from 75% a decade earlier.

The same held true for Catholicism. One in 5 adults reported being Catholic in 2021, as opposed to 23% in 2009, the Pew Research Center said. An April report signified a large decline in the number of Latinos identifying as Catholic, from 67% in 2010 to 43% in 2022.

But Columbus appears to be bucking that trend, Fernandes said. As a popular resettlement city for immigrants and refugees – and more generally, witnessing a boom in population – the number of parishioners belonging to the Columbus Diocese has slowly grown in recent years. The diocese’s website most recently reported a membership of 278,000, but Fernandes said that number grew to 330,000 in 2022.

“Now we need to do a better job in our Catholic schools of having a deeper evangelization, but also in public schools and in society at large,” Fernandes said. “How do we help these people to have faith? That’s one of the things that we’re really working on to maintain these elevated numbers.”

Analyses of shifting population trends in the larger Catholic Church also suggest rifts between parishioners and religious leadership over social issues, particularly its handling of sexual abuse within its ranks. Roughly 1 in 4 Catholics reported attending mass less frequently in 2019 as a result of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal, first widely reported in 2012. 

Reactions aren’t all negative, however, with 1 in 5 Catholics expressing support or encouragement to their priests amid reports of sexual abuse or misconduct within their parish, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report. At 24%, Catholics are more likely, relative to their non-Catholic counterparts at 9%, to believe sexual abuse in the church is a thing of the past.

In 2019, the Columbus Diocese released a list of names of clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor. The diocese said it has taken several steps, including revamping policies and training staff, to mitigate sexual abuse.

“There can always be a tendency to want to cling to the past, but we really need to be now forward-looking, building on the shoulders of the past,” Fernandes said. “But none of us have a time machine to reverse the decisions or the trends, some of which are beyond our control over the last four or five decades. Rather, we have to engage reality and say, ‘How can we bring God’s grace to this new reality?’”

Dwindling priesthood

The Diocese has also struggled to recruit priests in recent years, with 90 currently presiding over its 105 parishes, Fernandes said. Though some central Ohio regions are more heavily staffed, others – like a Perry County priest responsible for overseeing four different parishes – are stretched too thin.

But the number of people currently in training to become seminarians sits at 15, nearly double the rate the diocese has seen in past years, Fernandes said. It will take awhile, however, for them to develop the skill sets needed to lead a parish.

“We want our priests to be joyful witnesses to the Gospel, and we don’t want to put them in situations where we cannot succeed. But if they can succeed, then what they will do is really animate their communities and accept responsibility for the Church,” he said.

To address the absence of priests in some regions, mergers between two, three and even four churches were necessary, Fernandes said. He said the diocese must navigate its parishioners through the changes – which will be an adjustment for everyone.

“Change is difficult for people. You have to bring them along; you have to allow them to grieve but also to celebrate the good things and to kind of seek out new opportunities. How is God calling me to use my gifts and talents in a new place or in a new way? How can I cooperate with these people just up the road? They’ve been our arch rivals in sports in school – now we’re asked to work with them? How does that actually happen?”

Aging infrastructure, financial barriers

For some churches, crumbling infrastructure – that often comes with a hefty price tag – presents a problem, Fernandes said. Elsewhere, particularly in rural communities, some churches may be positioned miles away from parishioners.

“In some cases, it’s buying time for places. In other places, it’s the buildings, the structures aren’t going to hold up much longer, and so we need to do something now,” he said. “And we need to do something now because as congregations got older, as people moved away, there were fewer and fewer young families, a lot of maintenance got deferred.”

The diocese also reported a decline in offertory revenue in recent years in some of its decrees of suppression issued to area churches, which instruct them to close or merge.

Recruitment, evangelization

Despite the massive overhaul, Fernandes said he is optimistic for the new energy that is coming to the diocese, particularly among young people and migrants. The blueprint – and newly developed evangelization efforts – will give the diocese direction for the future, he said. 

“We need to start thinking about new ways of doing, so it’s really an invitation to people to see how they can use their gifts and talents in a new way,” Fernandes said. “It’s an investigation for further discernment; how do we actually make this work? It’s an invitation to see how badly people need the gift of faith and to reflect on how we’ve been blessed.”

Read the diocese’s “Real Presence, Real Future” plan below: