So let’s review the problems looking for a solution. Chicago’s Catholic archdiocese has an aging and therefore dwindling number of priests. (It is also committed to not allowing women to become priests or, generally, to allow priests to marry.) Attendance at Sunday Mass is also slumping as younger people start leaving the church soon after confirmation. Financial support drops along with church attendance. Catholic school enrollment has long diminished though has picked up a few converts by staying open during the COVID pandemic. It operates large, ornate and perpetually aging church buildings, including some on campuses with vacant schools, convents and underused rectories.
Hence the multi-year Renew My Church initiative instituted by Cardinal Blase Cupich. The process is intended to merge parishes to bring the supply of priests into balance with the number of churches. It should also lower costs by decommissioning old church buildings and potentially selling property off for new uses or development.
That makes the recent decision by the archdiocese to merge St. Luke Parish in River Forest with St. Bernardine Parish in Forest Park somewhat baffling. Yes, the announcement that Rev. Stan Kuca, longtime pastor at St. Bernardine’s, will now oversee both parishes and that Rev. John Szmyd, St. Luke pastor, will be reassigned does free up one priest. But keeping both churches open and active would seem to maintain costly maintenance and operations of the two campuses while also allowing parishioners who inevitably love their worship homes to stay in their church silos. And that makes unifying the two parishes into one seem unlikely.
The 2021 announcement comes with the promise that in 2024 the whole One Parish- Two Churches model will be reassessed. That may be when the real — and likely inevitable — pain will be felt.
The two campuses will soon be united under one new name. The shared pastor will appoint a blended parish council. There could be a fascinating sociological study done over these next years as parishes with little shared history and quite varied demographics seek unity. History would traditionally connect St. B’s with Oak Park’s south end Ascension more readily than St. Luke.
We wish these two congregations grace as they seek common ground in faith. We hope there is shared growth to be found and not merely a gradual slippage of two proud parishes.