Forest Park losing its only Catholic Church is one of two scenarios being considered by the Archdiocese of Chicago as Forest Park’s St. Bernardine parish and River Forest’s St. Luke parish are independently talking to parishioners and offering feedback to the archdiocese about their preferred and shared path forward.

These two Catholic parishes have been grouped together as part of the archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative, which aims to combine churches throughout the city and suburbs in the face of declining mass attendance and deteriorating finances.

According to Susan Thomas, public relations and communications manager for the Archdiocese of Chicago, a final decision is scheduled for March.

Under both of the possible scenarios, the two parishes will be united as one, with shared assets, budget and staff. 

But the real decision is how the church buildings themselves will be used, with the two archdiocesan options being either 1) closing the doors to St. Bernardine’s church and holding all services at St. Luke’s church, or 2) having one pastor overseeing both churches, which will hold separate masses but be united in finances and governance.

For St. Luke and St. Bernardine, the archdiocese held a Zoom presentation on Jan. 7 led by LeRoy Chalmers, senior project manager of operations transition for Renew My Church. 

Chalmers said that no decision has yet been made, and the Renew My Church committees at both parishes are encouraged to gather as much feedback as possible to officially submit to the archdiocese.

Feedback will go to the Renew My Church archdiocesan advisory groups that include Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the Chicago Archdiocese, and a panel of priests and other leaders.

“This is not a top-down approach,” Chalmers said, adding that Cardinal Blase Cupich, who will make the final decision, “is very adamant about getting feedback from the communities, who really know their communities best.”

Ultimately, though, Cupich makes the final call.

Why Renew My Church?

At the core, the archdiocese admits “a decline in faith life” is at the heart of the need to close some churches and combine others. Mass attendance throughout the archdiocese is down, fewer children raised in the faith continue in it into adulthood, and the number of priests is on the decline. Additionally, the maintenance of churches is expensive.

According to Chalmers’ presentation there are three foundational principles that guide whether a parish might remain independent or should become part of a larger grouping. They relate to regular mass attendance, operating revenue and parish school stability.

Parishes need to have a minimum of 800 parishioners attending mass each weekend to be assigned a full-time pastor. The most recent data collected by the archdiocese shows St. Bernardine with weekly attendance of 339 and St. Luke at 602, both under the necessary cutoff established by the archdiocese. 

A parish must have minimum operating revenue of $750,000, excluding rental income, to support staffing of an independent parish. St. Bernardine’s 2019 operating revenue was only $394,604. St. Luke’s was $1,055,559.

As for school stability, St. Bernardine’s school closed in 2013, but St. Luke’s 2020-21 enrollment is at 260, above the minimum 240 student enrollment set by the archdiocese and possibly lower this year due to COVID-19. (Enrollment in the 2019-20 school year was 296.)

Chalmers presented strengths of combining St. Bernardine and St. Luke parishes, including meeting the weekly attendance minimum and the opportunity to bring more students to St Luke’s school.

But the archdiocese has identified “challenges” of the grouping as well. For starters, parishioners unhappy about the grouping may leave, and the minimum attendance issue might not be remedied as a result. 

And, if services are moved to St. Luke, and if St. Bernardine’s church is closed, Chalmers pointed out a sad possibility: “Closing St. Bernardine would create a Catholic desert in Forest Park.”

Groupings might not stop with St. Bernardine and St. Luke’s, however. According to Thomas, “St. Vincent Ferrer [in River Forest] will be part of future grouping discussions about evangelization and other ministry after the current structural discussions between St. Bernardine and St. Luke conclude. 

St. Vincent Ferrer is owned by the Dominican Friars, which affects the structural options possible between St. Vincent Ferrer and the other two parishes. “With this in mind, it has been more fruitful for structural discussions to remain between St. Bernardine and St. Luke,” he said.

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