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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester has begun the process of closing a number of Catholic churches in Auburn and northern Cayuga County.

The churches that will close, and when, has yet to be determined, said Dan Fessenden, a member of a local pastoral planning committee that is working with the diocese. The committee has been researching and discussing the matter since last fall, and will present its final recommendations to Bishop Salvatore Matano in early May. He will ultimately decide which churches are closed, or “relegated to profane use,” as the Roman Catholic Church calls the process. Fessenden told The Citizen there is no known timetable for Matano’s decision.

As part of that process, the committee will host two meetings for the public to offer feedback at 6:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, April 19 and 20, at St. Hyacinth Church, 61 Pulaski St., Auburn. Their feedback will help the committee finalize its recommendations, Fessenden said, so he encouraged anyone interested to attend one of them. A video of one will also be recorded and made available online.

Along with St. Hyacinth, the churches that could possibly be closed are:

• St. Mary’s, 15 Clark St.; St. Alphonsus, 85 E. Genesee St.; St. Francis of Assisi, 299 Clark St.; and Holy Family, 85 North St., all in Auburn

• Sacred Heart, 90 Melrose Road; and St. Ann’s, 4890 Twelve Corners Road, both in Owasco

• St. Joseph Church, 8831 S. Seneca St., Weedsport

• St. Patrick’s Church, 2576 Mechanic St., Cato

Fessenden said the committee was formed after a June 4 letter from Matano asking for a pastoral plan for those nine churches. The committee is made up of members of each church.

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“There’s a good table full of thoughtful members of the local Catholic community working on these issues,” Fessenden said. 

The committee began by studying the factors that led Matano to ask for the plan, including the decline of local church attendance. American church membership dropped below 50% for the first time in at least eight decades last year, according to a recent Gallup poll, and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to accelerate that decline. The committee also studied Cayuga County’s steadily decreasing population, demographic shifts, financial trends and priest availability. The nine churches share two pastors, the Revs. Frank Lioi and John G. Gathenya, and their assistants.

The committee then studied the churches themselves. They assessed the condition of the buildings, additional facilities and grounds, and considered any investments they might need in the near future. Other focuses included their individual attendance numbers, financial sustainability and potential for sale and reuse, as well as the impact their closure would have on their parishioners.

Fessenden said the process has been full of challenging moments for him and his fellow committee members.

“This has been a classic example where you’re trying to use quantitative information and data in a way that’s smart and responsible, but at the same time you’re dealing with very, very emotional issues for the parishioners that are involved with this,” he said. “We’re giving thoughtful balance to the full spectrum of points that need to be considered.”

Fessenden declined to tell The Citizen which church or churches, if any, are currently the leading candidates for closure. The committee presented its early recommendations to local parish councils in March, and continued developing them using the feedback it received there. It will do the same at Monday and Tuesday’s meetings, beginning them by presenting its current recommendations.

Contact information for the committee will also be provided at the meetings so anyone can offer feedback until the final recommendations are presented to Matano next month. Any churches he selects will join St. John’s in Port Byron, which was closed last year, as well as St. Isaac Jogues in Fleming, St. Aloysius in Auburn and more names in Cayuga County’s long Catholic history.

“These are hard, hard choices and decisions being considered,” Fessenden said. “No one is taking them lightly and in the end, I assure you that the decisions made by the bishop will be difficult.”

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox

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