Sad closing of a Washington Post-friendly parish

One of the hardest concepts to explain to people who have never worked in a newsroom is why some events in a city are “news stories” in the eyes of most journalists and other events, that seem similar, are not.

A suburban megachurch builds a massive family-life center and it isn’t news. The same evangelical church builds a new parking lot that — in the eyes of its neighbors — clashes with zoning laws and the story goes straight to the front page. Meanwhile, the historic Episcopal parish in downtown decides to change a single window in its sanctuary (the original has been there since the facility was built, of course) and the story runs on A1 on a Sunday, with multiple photos.

Does it help that a key editor attends the Episcopal parish and, thus, knows about the historic window? Does it hurt that no one in the newsroom has ever walked through the doors of that 5,000-member megachurch? Probably.

Still, history matters. That old real-estate law — location, location, location — matters in journalism, as well.

I bring this up because of a recent Washington Post story about the closing of a Catholic parish here in The District.

Now, it is a sad fact of life that Catholic parishes (and churches of many other mainline stripes, as well) close all of the time. Sometimes they close in bunches, as Catholic leaders wrestle with the demographic principalities and powers of our age.

In this case, the Post is talking about the closing of a 153-year-old Jesuit parish, which means — in DC Beltway terms — that this is a parish that, no matter where it is located, it is part of the wider world of Georgetown University and of the progressive wing of local Catholic life.

Thus, this is news, while the closing of other local parishes may or may not be news. In this case, St. Aloysius Gonzaga will be merged into Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, which is only three blocks away.

Here is the crunch passage that, for the savvy reader, truly signals what is what.

The St. Aloysius building, which is owned by the Jesuits and is part of the Gonzaga College High School campus, will continue to be used by the school. Holy Redeemer will also use it for special services, weddings and funerals, parish officials said. The parish’s Father McKenna Center for homeless men will continue to operate.

But the eclectic congregation of about 250 households will cease to exist. Many who attended Sunday’s Mass hugged each other and dabbed at tears, saying the city has lost a parish heralded for cultural diversity, vibrant services and an unusually devoted service to the poor.

“We have White House staffers and people who are homeless worshiping in this church,” said Lynnly Tydings, of Takoma Park, who attended St. Aloysius for 21 years.

The parish, Tydings and others said, attracted many Catholics who felt uncomfortable elsewhere. About 90 percent of its parishioners came from other parts of the District and the suburbs, parish leaders said.

“This is a place where all of us who want to be Catholic can be, even if we don’t follow everything the church says we should be following,” Tydings said.

Of course, this parishioner commutes to this parish from Takoma Park, which is, among DC Beltway folks, known as “The Berkeley of the East” and “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” Of course, this parish-of-choice community is “eclectic” — which has to be the funky adjective of the week in this context. When has this parish clashed with the archdiocese? What were the issues? Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

I, for one, wanted to know more about the status of the school itself. Why? Connect the dots on these facts:

Since 1965, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has dropped from about 58,600 to 39,000. The subsect of “religious priests,” which includes Jesuits and other religious orders, now numbers about 12,300, down from 22,700, according to the Center for Applied Research In the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The Rev. Thomas Clifford, St. Aloysius’s pastor for the past six years, said he’s seen the number of Jesuits in the Mid-Atlantic region drop from about 750 priests and students to roughly 320 over his four decades in the priesthood. Nearly half are now older than 70, he said.

Wait a minute: Only 320 priests AND STUDENTS? Surely the word “students” was supposed to have been “seminarians.”

But back to the issue of the Jesuit school attached to the Jesuit parish:

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Jesuits, said St. Aloysius was closed because it was the smallest parish in the Mid-Atlantic. Because the church building is part of the high school campus and attached to the Jesuit teachers’ residences, the diocese could not put a non-Jesuit priest there, she said.

So the church is attached to the housing unit for the Jesuit teachers. For me, this raises a rather basic question: Will there still be Jesuits in residence there, Jesuits who will continue to teach at the school? If so, why wouldn’t those priests continue to serve the parish? There seems to be a missing number in this equation. Are the teachers who live at the school priests? Laypeople? A combination of the two?

As always, the ghost in the story is the issue of demographics. If this is a thriving, eclectic parish (the spiritual home of anonymous White House staffers!) with awesome, vibrant worship services, why is this the smallest Jesuit parish in the whole region? Is the school thriving? Is it running on endowment money, at this point, money that cannot be used to support the parish?

So many questions. Instead, on the issue of issues, readers are given this familiar deep bow to the logical of the demographically thriving (not) world of liberal mainline Protestantism (with no corresponding voice from an authoritative Catholic insider critical of this particular parish):

Several St. Aloysius parishioners said they felt abandoned by the Catholic Church. Teddi Ann Galligan, of the District, said she found it “heartbreaking and astonishing” that the parish where she’d been married and had two children baptized would close because of a shortage of priests.

If the Catholic Church allowed women and married people to be ordained, she said, “They’d never have to close a church for lack of a priest.”

Wait a minute. So the Jesuits of the American Northeast are not, as a flock, progressive enough? That’s the source of the problems for this parish and many others?

So many questions, so little ink. So few voices involved in the discussion. But clearly, the closing of this eclectic, progressive parish is news in the Post newsroom. Readers should have little doubt why that is so.

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  • Mark D

    Just as a bit more information for you from a graduate of the Jesuit high school in question.

    The parish used a basement church below the church you pictured above. The historic church pictured above was basically reserved for school Masses and not used for parish events or masses. The basement church was little bigger than many chapels.

    The school itself is most definitely thriving, completing many multi-million dollar renovations of the main campus over the last decade. The parish and the school had very few ties of any sort. Confessions and daily Mass for students were both offered in the school chapel by the priest/teachers, not through the attached parish.

    • Jim

      I am curious to know more about the relationship between the school and the parish. Is the school staffed in part by Jesuit priests? If this is the case, could they not offer a weekend mass? Also, why did the parish move to the basement? What confuses me most is that in all parish school combinations I’ve seen, the parish owns the school. Therefore, if the parish closes, the school closes. It would seem though that the school is doing fine, and will continue on after the merger. Will the school then fall under the jurisdiction of Holy Redeemer or remain under the Jesuits?

      • Joe

        I am curious to know more about the relationship between the school and the parish.

        As Mark D points out, the school and the parish have few ties, beyond the fact that they were both founded and staffed by Jesuits. Gonzaga isn’t a ‘parochial’ school in the traditional sense, but an independent Catholic preparatory high school that happens to share a campus with a parish church; the parish and school are not “connected” in the typical sense. The Jesuits will remain at Gonzaga, which will have nothing to do with Holy Redeemer in canonical or legal terms, just as the school was not legally or canonically connected to St. Aloysius.

  • Joe

    When I first read the article, I was struck by the contrast between the relative smallness of the parish (“250 households”) and its purported status as a magnet for “eclectic” (or ‘progressive,’ ‘disaffected,’ etc.) Catholics from the larger metro area. If the parish is a magnet, it’s not drawing that many people – which raises other questions that the reporter could have pursued, e.g. whether other “eclectic” communities were drawing more people (yes, I’d say, having lived in DC and come across similar parishes) and whether parishioners upset by the closing will go elsewhere or just stop going to church altogether.

    I also have to grind my teeth when I read bits like the closing line about ordination of married men and women as a solution to the priest shortage in the Roman Catholic Church. Journalists writing these kinds of stories often seem to let the claim stand without further exploration – e.g. looking at data from other denominations, or surveys of Roman Catholics (which I think I’ve actually seen somewhere) asking married men and women how likely they would be to pursue ordained ministry if that possibility were open to them. It bothers me that changes in discipline and doctrine are simply presented as an obvious solution without any effort being made to study the underlying assumptions that such changes would provide a wave of new vocations, or that other factors (like the decline in Mass attendance, or shifting demographics in the area served by particular parishes) couldn’t lead to the closing of parishes even if clergy were available to staff them.

  • Spencerian

    This story has a strange balance problem.
    Two members of the parish not only state their sorrow at the parish’s closing, but state how they were comfortable at the church because the parish/it’s members did not follow Church teaching. The second of the two members note how “if women priests” were allowed, the parish would continue to operate.
    The reporter seems to seek out the dissenters of the parish…or was the parish closed because of the level of dissent as well as fiscal/pastoral issues? As to the comment on female priests, the story shows a live link to a related story, making the story become a women priest-advocacy piece.
    “We have White House staffers and people who are homeless worshiping in this church,” another quote said. Does this suggest that this was the only D.C. parish that took up the causes of liberal social justice? If the reporter “went there” in this story, why not explore a little more about how such parish members thought about the closing would impact causes that are now forcefully assumed by the government…and by the very employers that live and work in the White House.
    The religion ghost of non-Catholic behavior within a Catholic parish is visible, haunting, and punching us readers in the face.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    It is amazing how often mainstream media put their little propaganda pieces in stories by quoting others –sometimes in a manner that shows zero awareness about trends in the Catholic Church.
    The woman who complained about there not being married priests was married in the Catholic church and her children baptized in the Catholic church profiled in the story–I presume by a Jesuit celibate priest. However, the Catholic Church does have an ordained married clergy and our numbers are growing rapidly—we are called deacons. And , in the Catholic Church we can do 80% of what a priest can do –up to and including being administrators of parishes as well as doing marriage and baptism preparation classes– that take much more time than the sacramental ceremonies –as well as celebrate the sacramental ceremonies themselves.
    A good place on the internet for reporters to stay relevant on the expanding role and burgeoning numbers of ordained married clergy in the Catholic Church is “The Deacon’s Bench” website run by a Catholic deacon who was once part of the CBS TV Network staff. …

  • In what turned out to be its last months, the parish was using the main church upstairs; I hadn’t quite realized that this was a way of saying “Farewell.” With so many other problems in the Archdiocese, I doubt that Cardinal Wuerl would risk the blowback from a case of ” Did Saint Al’s fall, or was it pushed?” I agree that there are many parishes the Cardinal would miss much more, but I had heard that the Jesuits are going to have only about a dozen parishes in their province, and that the parish had had to wait about two years for the last pastor to get to Saint Al’s: a sad and weird end.

  • Joe

    I don’t read the article as suggesting that the parish was closed because of theological dissent, or even that the Archdiocese would be more willing to see St. Al’s close before other parishes on account of such dissent. Though the article could have been filled out more, the basic reasons presented for the closing seem to be quite simple: (1) the Jesuits decided they couldn’t staff the parish any longer because of their own declining numbers; and (2) the small size of the parish (250 households) and its close proximity to another parish (three blocks) made it hard for the Archdiocese (which also faces a shortage of priests) to keep the parish open. The presence of dissenting parishioners doesn’t necessarily indicate that the parish was targeted for closing on theological grounds – particularly when the survival of the parish was already endangered by the declining number of both priests and parishioners.

    • Proteios1

      Good point. I think the “media-watch” angle of this piece comes from the fact the story, although semi informative ends with the usual claptrap suggestion Catholics change doctrine. That sort of silliness passes for media these days. Shallow examination of the objective story. Mix in some opinion that may or may not be related, but is clearly not reporting news, but commenting…in a bias fashion…on the story.

  • Chris

    re: “But the eclectic congregation of about 250 households”

    Waiting for story headline:
    “Boring white suburban parish closes”

    • Proteios1

      Funny. I expect lines in the story like,
      “parishioners enjoy orthodox priests homily on why contraception is opposed by the Church and the faithful. When asked about the homily, a female parishioner wonders why the subject needed discussing as no one she knows uses the stuff, but expects it was due to remind us of that important lesson. she then tried to round up her children who were busy playing with all the other kids and eating donuts after mass in this vibrant Ctholic community.”

  • AmyP

    I don’t know this particular parish, but I’m Catholic and did 2 years in suburban MD and 4 years in DC proper. I forget how many families there were at the Gaithersburg MD parish we often went to, but they had 13 Sunday masses (some on Saturday night, some on Sunday, some in Spanish, some in English, folk mass, non-folk mass, using various parish buildings, etc.). One of the priests there said that no matter what event you organized there, there would always be at least 25 people showing up. The church building itself was on the small side. Nationally, a Catholic parish with 1,000 or 2,000 families on the books is pretty normal (actual attendance is different, of course). Within that context, a city parish that only has 250 families on the books is a really terrible use of resources if there is another church 3 blocks away.

  • … As far as the WP goes, who cares? You expect a liberal paper to fairly present both sides of a Catholic issue? If you believe that, then you must also believe that Buddhist lesbian is leading a celibate life and reverted to true Catholicism.

  • SK

    I don’t think that comment on Buddhists was called for and I don’t think the last sentence in you blog makes any sense in the context of this post or the purpose of this blog.