The Best Option is Not to Close
by Deacon Patrick Toole, appearing in Volume 43
A question that can bedevil a diocese is what to do with unused or underutilized Church properties. How does one find new uses for existing facilities that remain in keeping with their religious character and the mission of the diocese? In the diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, we have tried some things that might be helpful in other places.
Bridge Building and the Bishop of Bridgeport
Our bishop, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, in his installation homily on September 19, 2013, as the fifth bishop of Bridgeport, spoke about the importance of renewing the diocese by “bridge building.” He invited the people of the diocese to welcome people back to the Church, engage the youth more fully, and support the people in the pews in their effort to live their faith more deeply as they strive to create a loving community.
Now, after almost ten years of planning, innovation, and improvisation, and a strategic approach to repurposing properties, we have seen those bridges take shape in missionary discipleship, the revitalization of faith communities, and the renovation and repurposing of existing diocesan facilities.
Like many other dioceses, Bridgeport has the challenges of declining numbers and aging infrastructure. However, when we looked beyond the obvious problems—that the buildings were a financial drain and there were fewer people to support them—what we found were many pastorally vibrant, faithful, committed communities. We were not willing to give up on those communities for financial reasons.
The obvious temptation when administrators face such challenges is to manage toward a smaller number of properties and larger congregations. Unfortunately, this path can lead to a downward spiral that discourages parishioners and erodes confidence in the diocese. It may also overlook places where there is considerable vitality beneath the surface that the Church should nurture and support. The real work for the diocese, therefore, is to leverage our resources to create new opportunities for people to encounter and develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Not One Formula
No one formula can be applied to each situation. In some cases, parish mergers or selling parish or diocesan property may be inevitable to pay off debt or launch a core initiative. If viewed purely in financial terms, some of these problems may look intractable; however, we have found that, if we put the focus on renewal and have faith in the creativity of the Holy Spirit, new opportunities can often be found.
If a parish is not financially viable, the best option may not be to close it, especially if there is a vibrant community, even if it is small. We have found that looking for other solutions opens the possibility of new ways to evangelize that will keep the doors open and create new opportunities for mission. To borrow a term from city planners, “adaptive reuse” strategies can clear a path toward a new mission or a collaborative partnership that will breathe new life into a community. It can also put a parish on solid financial footing and lead to new growth.
In some cases, an under-used property—whether a rectory, school building, or some other facility—was actually the fulcrum for creating a partnership and a new mission. Most recently, the diocese partnered with Fairfield University to announce the opening of the university’s Bellarmine campus on the grounds of the former Saint Ambrose Parish in Bridgeport, which was closed in 2011 and has been largely unused since.
The Bellarmine initiative is a path to higher education for students who would not otherwise find the support and resources needed to earn a college degree. In the fall of 2023, the former parish buildings will house classrooms and student services that will change lives in ways that build community.
The Power of Partnering
An invitation to the Sisters of the Company of the Savior to bring their education ministry to the diocese in 2018 later turned out to be a lifeline for Catholic education in the diocese. When Bishop Caggiano announced the decision to close Trinity Catholic High School after years of mounting debt and declining enrollment, he immediately began working with the Sisters to facilitate their move into the 125,000-square-foot high school building on the twenty-acre campus. In 2021-2022, they opened Mater Salvatoris College Preparatory School, which has seen a steady increase in enrollment, which has helped preserve the Catholic high school option in the community.
Partnering with religious orders has not only injected new life into buildings and grounds but also provided a lifeline to struggling parishes. For example, Our Lady of Good Council Parish in the North End of Bridgeport was financially challenged and experiencing declining membership. By traditional indicators, the parish needed to close.
However, Bishop Caggiano, moved by the zeal and commitment of the parishioners, looked for other ways to serve the community. That search led him to the Federation of Koinonia of John the Baptist and their commitment to the New Evangelization through fellowship. The bishop issued a decree welcoming them to the Diocese of Bridgeport on August 22, 2021.
The Federation of Koinonia has since purchased the property, relieving the parish and the diocese of the financial burden. In addition to moving forward with their own mission, the members of Koinonia have ministered to the remaining members of the Our Lady of Good Council community, which has begun to grow and embrace Koinonia.
By seeking to find ways to support smaller faith communities, the diocese has also seen a shift in its fundraising strategy and donors’ enthusiasm. Traditionally, many dioceses raise money through general annual appeals. We found that donors want to invest in a specific initiative.
By recasting properties for a different mission of evangelization, the diocese has identified new donors and collaborative partnerships who believe the Church needs to go out into the world and help people encounter Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.
Realizing that philanthropic individuals are willing to step up and invest in compelling projects that renew the Church has dovetailed nicely with the bishop’s vision of creating new pastoral centers for environmental stewardship, pro-life activities, evangelizing communications, and other concerns.
The thriving Sacred Arts Guild, which celebrates Catholic tradition in art, architecture, music, and liturgy, has attracted young adults to the Sacred Heart Church campus in Georgetown, Connecticut, which is part of a merged parish. While the merged parish continues to use the church for worship and other activities, it also houses the Oratory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has become the center of a thriving worship community.
Collaboration is Key
Our bishop has also put several other initiatives in place to support new opportunities while giving parishes the resources they need to maintain their financial health and respond to current needs. Our Parish Collaboration and Reconfiguration Program has brought parishes together to share the costs of religious education, outreach to youth, and other needs. Not only has the pooling of resources reduced costs, it has improved programming, created new enthusiasm, and enabled struggling parishes to keep their doors open.
Likewise, the bishop’s creation of the Seton Collaborative in 2021 is also proving to be a valuable resource for schools and parishes. Borrowing from the shared services concept employed by many businesses, the non-profit collaborative provides financial, operational, management, and information technology services that can be cost-prohibitive for an individual parish or school.
It also frees pastors and principals to focus on their core educational and pastoral ministries while expanding the resources to handle the business side of operations. Many of the area’s top business leaders have stepped forward to serve on the collaborative board and share their expertise.
Because much of the re-purposing of facilities often involves brick-and-mortar projects, it is essential to have an internal team capable of coordinating planning and design. It is helpful to get drawings and concepts in front of the bishop and parish leaders, along with cost estimates to show to potential investors. Our Office of Real Estate and Facilities has been invaluable in assembling the professional help needed to see a project through to completion.
Not all the lessons we have learned may be translatable to other dioceses, but I believe they open a path forward. The operative principles of collaboration, innovation, and repurposing offer a good foundation for change and create a sense of engagement and optimism.
To be sure, there have been many pitfalls and missteps along the way. Not all communities are a perfect fit; sharing facilities can lead to conflict over scheduling; and changing how we do business can disrupt existing systems and require re-training.
Preserving the Legacy Entrusted to Us
In the Northeast, much of our infrastructure was created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That patrimony is a great gift, but it also challenges us to build bridges to the twenty-first century and to support the living communities of faith who gather in our churches, send their children to our schools, and give sacrificially to our mission.
In many churches, the first parishioners physically hauled the stone to build the foundations and walls that became the bridge to those who followed. We, in turn, must use all our technology, know-how, and resources to find solutions that can create hope and build bridges to the future and preserve the legacy our forebears left for us.