A Call for Religious Regionalism

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At the core of every parish in the Cleveland Diocese is a church. It's a place that hosts the baptisms of babies, the marriages of young lovers, and the funerals of parents. Dorothy Kramczak's church is St. Clare in Lyndhurst. Sometimes she feels like it is slipping away from her.

Dorothy Kramczak: When I was young, our church was everything. It was our training in all our religious beliefs. It was also our entertainment, it was our social endeavors - we had festivals, with dancing and singing. It was all together in our parish.

Kramczak says church life just isn't like that anymore. The sense of community isn't the same. The needs of growing and shifting congregations make it hard for the priests to keep up. Rick Krivanka, who heads Cleveland's Vibrant Parish Life program, says there are three challenges that face almost every parish in the country.

Rick Krivanka: There is the reality of changing demographics. As people move around, we suddenly need parishes where we don't have them. Along with that is finances. Having enough financial support to sustain a vibrant parish is very important. And then, thirdly, there's the reality of the number of priests.

The number of available priests has dwindled while the costs of running the church have risen. Many tiny rural parishes have grown due to suburban development, while huge urban church buildings are largely empty. Krivanka says these changes have made it necessary to reorganize Northeast Ohio's parishes. Just as some suburbs are experimenting with the sharing of fire services or waste collection, each parish was recently asked to pick a neighbor or two that it could band together with and share resources as part of a "cluster."

Rick Krivanka: Parishes had six months to submit up to three configurations of a cluster that they felt could work in their area. Recommendations were then made to Bishop Lennon who then, in turn, carefully studied all those recommendations with his staff.

Earlier this month, the Bishop released a list of nearly 70 suggested parish clusters. Within these groupings, churches will share everything from schools to worship services, and even priests, in some cases. In Dorothy Kramczak's case, her St. Clare parish is set to cluster with St. Paschal Baylon in nearby Highland Heights.

Dorothy Kramczak: I don't like it. I think we're losing our individuality as a parish. I know there are a lot of things that St. Paschal's does that we don't and vice versa. We're going to have to come to a lot of compromise.

Bishop Richard Lennon has been involved in reorganizing parishes before - and challenged on it - in Boston, where he served as Vicar General before being tapped last year to head the Cleveland Diocese. Boston attorney Sharon Herrington says church officials used the cluster approach as a way to downsize the parish system.

Sharon Herrington: They had you meet with your cluster three different times, and at the end of this you were supposed to vote one or two parishes off the island. It had nothing to do with the vibrancy of the other parishes. If you were in a strong cluster, where all of the parishes should survive, you still had to kill one or two parishes.

Herrington proved that a church closing notice wasn't carved in stone - or clay tablets. She waged a legal battle and eventually convinced Cardinal Sean O'Malley to reopen a number of former churches and give them new missions. Bishop Lennon argues that it isn't fair to compare Boston and Cleveland.

Bishop Lennon: We're comparing apples to oranges. This here is "clustering" from the very beginning. It was anticipated. There was no clustering ever in Boston. The thing in Boston was, the bishop made a decision that he was going to reconfigure - period. No choice. Clustering is primarily about working together.

Rick Krivanka says the Diocese is trying to balance the memories that dwell within the walls of the church... with the realities that loom outside.

Rick Krivanka: I guess the analogy that comes to mind - think of a family home. A family home has tremendous meaning to a family who has lived there. The memories that have lived in that home, but there eventually comes a time when the family size changes, and suddenly it's only mom or dad who are able to live there, and the home is too much to take care of. There needs to be a change.

Parish leaders have until the end of next week to voice their concerns about the cluster plan for their church. A final decision on the exact make-up of the clusters is due to be announced in early May. David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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