Earlier this year, Rev. George Omwando, the pastor of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Parish, 38 N. Austin Blvd., was abruptly transferred to another parish in Chicago, leaving the 132-year-old institution without a full-time priest.
“The parish is very disappointed that he left,” said Tom Lynch, a longtime St. Catherine-St. Lucy parishioner and former chair of the church’s finance committee.
“He was very much a people person,” Lynch said of Omwando. “Wherever he went, he just spread smiles and pleasantries. He did his job and he did it well. He had a well-organized parish.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago did not provide an explanation of the reassignment. Omwando, who joined the Oak Park church in 2012, started his new position as assistant pastor at the Parish of Our Lady of Grace and St. Sylvester in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood on Aug 1. An attempt to contact Omwando on Aug. 16 was unsuccessful.
The pastoral change at St. Catherine-St. Lucy is indicative of the fluid state of Oak Park’s Catholic landscape, said Rev. John McGivern, the pastor of St. Edmund Parish, 188 S. Oak Park Ave., who was appointed administrator of St. Catherine-St. Lucy in March.
“Changes are coming to the Catholic Church in Oak Park and I don’t know what the final footprint will look like,” McGivern said on Aug. 16. “It’s possible four parishes become two or three. The whole process has barely begun.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said that all four Oak Park parishes belong to the 100 Renew My Church groupings across the archdiocese.
“The Oak Park grouping will meet through the fall to discern the best path forward for the four parishes in the grouping,” the archdiocese spokesperson said. “We hope to share more updates in the New Year.”
In June, the four Oak Park parishes that make up one Renew My Church grouping — St. Catherine-St. Lucy, St. Edmund, St. Giles, 1025 Columbian Ave., and Ascension, 808 S. East Ave. — started “the process of discerning the future of the Catholic Church in Oak Park,” Rev. Carl Morello, the pastor of St. Giles, wrote in a letter to parishioners that’s posted on the church’s website.
Last year, the archdiocese assigned Morello to become administrator at Ascension, effectively succeeding Ascension’s former pastor, Rev. Jim Hulbert. Rev. Rex Pillai, a Chicago priest, was assigned to serve as Ascension’s pastoral leader.
McGivern said the archdiocese utilizes two benchmarks for helping it determine a parish’s vibrancy: a minimum of 800 worshippers attending the parish on a given weekend and a minimum annual operating budget of $750,000. These minimum benchmarks were adjusted downward to try to account for the impact of the pandemic, McGivern said.
The pastor said based on his ballpark guesstimate, St. Catherine-St. Lucy’s weekly mass attendance has been roughly 100 while the weekly attendance at St. Edmund has been around 200. He also said that financially, St. Catherine-St. Lucy’s revenue figures were much lower than the archdiocese benchmark.
“What I know is that attendance is down everywhere,” McGivern said. “The numbers were already down before the pandemic, which was partly, not solely, what precipitated Renew My Church. But Covid has really dropped the figures even more dramatically.”
Church attendance across the country had been trending downward a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent Religious Landscape Study, conducted in 2014.
The study found that only 27% of older Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1989) attended religious services at least weekly, compared with 56% of Generation X adults (born between 1965 and 1980) and 61% and 67% of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945), respectively.
And only 29% of adults in the Chicago metro area reported attending religious services at least once a week, according to the Pew study.
The declining church attendance numbers and the financial deterioration of many parishes across the Chicago metropolitan area are what, in part, prompted Cardinal Blase Cupich to announce the Renew My Church initiative in 2017.
According to the initiative’s website, mass attendance across the archdiocese has decreased by 27% over the past 20 years and only 17% of Catholic Millennials reported attending mass each week.
“With Chicago being such a community of immigrants, there were parishes that were a couple of blocks from each other,” McGivern said. “One might be German, one might be Polish, one might be Irish. While that made sense when there was an influx of immigration, it no longer makes sense now and it isn’t spiritually and economically feasible for there to be so many parishes so close to each other.”
But while weekly mass attendance and revenue may be flagging, those aren’t the only indicators that the archdiocese uses when evaluating individual parishes, McGivern said.
Other factors, such as significance to the local community, also come into play. According to Lynch, that’s where Oak Park’s four parishes really stand out.
“I don’t know if this was by plan or what, but Oak Park’s parishes are amazingly well distributed,” Lynch said. “You’ve got one north, one south, one east and one west.”
Lynch said he believes that all four of the village’s parishes have compelling cases to make when it comes to arguing their unique and indelible impact on the local neighborhoods in which they’re located. He said that’s especially the case with St. Catherine-St. Lucy , which has historically served parts of Chicago’s Austin community.
McGivern said he’s even hopeful about the future of Oak Park’s Catholic community, even as local churches adjust to consolidation and Covid.
“Since becoming administrator of St. Catherine-St. Lucy, I’ve really valued being part of that community,” McGivern said. “I’ve been welcomed warmly and we’ve begun to bridge the parochial divides between St. Edmunds and St. Catherine-St. Lucy parishioners. We now share a weekday worship schedule, so we’re now gathering as one community of faith and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Lynch said he’s hopeful that attendance will eventually rebound as younger adults grow older.
“This is a large community and we’ve got a lot of Catholics,” Lynch said. “We need our churches and even though attendance has dropped, I think eventually it will come back as the younger people get a little older and appreciative of what we have to offer.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly mentioned Fr. John McGivern as Fr. George McGivern. This article has since been updated. Growing Community Media regrets the error.