STEUBENVILLE, Ohio (WTRF/WCMH)– The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville has proposed a merger with the Diocese of Columbus citing the declining population, low mass attendance, and economic struggles in the Ohio Valley as the reason.

“My heart is broken. It feels like there is a hole in my soul, put it that way,” said Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of the Diocese of Steubenville. “But I would be negligent if I didn’t resolve the situation.”

The Diocese of Steubenville was established by Pope Pius XII in 1944 when Steubenville had a population of around 37,000 people. Today, U.S. Census estimates have it just under 18,000. The new diocese included 13 counties along the Ohio River (Athens, Belmont, Carroll, Gallia, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Lawrence, Meigs, Morgan, Monroe, Noble, and Washington) that formerly belonged to the Diocese of Columbus.

“In 1990 we had 24,729 Catholics that went regularly to Sunday mass. In 2019 we had 13,702. The numbers are strong empirical evidence,” Monforton said.

The process is underway but must go through several steps before it is finalized. Monforton says he has been talking with the bishops of Ohio, and a vote was taken on how to proceed. From there, the Bishop will conduct a survey among the members of his Diocese. That information will be sent to the United States Conference of Bishops in Baltimore.

“There will be a discussion and vote and then whatever the vote, whatever it entails all that information will go to the Holy See, also known as the Vatican, and a decision will be made by Pope Francis,” he explained.

Diocese of Columbus Bishop Earl K. Fernandes says discussions of the viability of the Diocese of Steubenville were already underway when he was installed as Columbus’ new bishop in May.

“The Ohio bishops were unanimous that the situation in Steubenville couldn’t continue much longer and referred the matter to the Congregation for Bishops,” Fernandes said in a statement to NBC4. “This matter will now need the approval of the USCCB. There should be a discussion of this during the November Plenary Assembly. Until after the November meeting of the USCCB, it is useless to speculate or worry; rather, let us pray that the Lord shows us the path forward. ” 

Monforton says a merger will not affect local parishes and schools and there are no plans at this time for any church closures.

“That’s not being considered,” he said. “The only thing that will change at the parishes during the Eucharistic prayer, instead of saying ‘Our Bishop Jeffrey,’ they will say ‘Our Bishop Earl.’ Otherwise, it’s basically status quo. Catholic Central [High School] still stays. We got financial campaigns that are being looked at in St. Clairsville. That must continue. The church will not leave the Ohio Valley.”