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Catholic Diocese of Buffalo to shutter dozens of parishes in restructuring plan

Bishop Michael Fisher stands in front of a lectern and microphone on the left side of the image. Two other priests in black clothing are sitting at a table with a beige table cloth. The table has two microphones, three water bottles and a laptop on it. The three clergymen are standing in front of a beige wall.
Alex Simone / WBFO News
Bishop Michael Fisher (left) announced that the diocese would be closing roughly a third of its parishes.

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo is planning to close dozens of parishes, citing financial struggles and a decreasing number of priests.

Under its plan, the diocese will close 54 of its 160 parishes and merge them with other churches. Church officials plan to finalize a course of action in the fall and completely implement it by next year’s Pentecost in June 2025.

Diocesan officials said the plan would reduce the diocese’s property costs and allow it to focus on its mission.

“We need to break out of this maintenance model that we have,” Bishop Michael Fisher said at a press conference Tuesday. “We’re spending all of our resources maintaining facilities and buildings. [We] need to be missionary, to evangelize, to go out and, again, to share the good news, and to be joyful about our faith, which I know our people want.”

The diocese’s announcement comes about four years after the Diocese filed for bankruptcy to settle hundreds of sex abuse claims against clergy and other diocese staff and volunteers. At the same time, the diocese has had to grapple with falling church attendance, donations and recruitment to clergy.

WBFO’s Alex Simone attended a press conference with diocesan officials Tuesday, he spoke with WBFO’s Grant Ashley about what Western New Yorkers should expect next for the diocese and its hundreds of thousands of congregants. You can read the full transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, here:

 

Grant Ashley: Thank you for joining us, Alex.

Alex Simone: Yeah Grant, thanks for having me.

Grant Ashley: So, I guess to start off, could you just tell us a little bit more about the diocese’s plan here?

Alex Simone: So this was a press conference by the Diocese of Buffalo to talk about their plans to restructure the organization of their parishes and worship sites over the next year. The plan is to reduce their number from 160 parishes and 196 worship sites down to 106 parishes and 121 worship sites. They want the planning process to be done by the fall, and then they want to have all of those changes ideally implemented by next Pentecost.

Grant Ashley: OK, wow, seems like a pretty quick timeline on that. Do you have any idea what’s driving these changes?

Alex Simone: So, the diocese has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Grant Ashley: A lot of our listeners might remember that the diocese declared bankruptcy to settle hundreds of abuse claims against clergy and diocese employees and volunteers, correct?

Alex Simone: Right, and even Bishop Michael Fisher said that when he arrived in the area during the pandemic in 2021, the diocese was already filing for bankruptcy, so it’s not like this is anything new, right? This has been going on for a while. But they said that it’s now, as the number of priests continues to decline, and as the contributions from their parishes and from the Catholic population also decline, they say that they’re going to need to adapt and become less of an organization that’s focused on maintenance and having all of those property costs to worry about, and more focused on the mission and the outreach in the area.

Grant Ashley: Right, you’ve got fewer members, less money coming in, higher legal costs, and now the Catholic Church is just trying to adapt to those changing conditions.

Alex Simone: Right, and they didn’t say exactly what’s going to happen to all of those locations that will no longer be in use, but they did say that they have a department, essentially, that will handle those properties and make sure that they’re utilizing their current spaces best, and finding the best use for those spaces that they close. And I don't know what the sale of those spaces would look like, but obviously they can't continue to maintain them, so something would have to happen differently there.

Grant Ashley: Did Bishop Fisher give any indication about how they’re going to decide which churches to close, or whether they’ve already identified some churches that they’re going to close?

Alex Simone: Yes, they said that a lot of it is based on the distance parishioners travel to church. So for example, the rural locations, right? You’ll have to drive further to get to your parish anyway, so if they close it down, then that’s going to be tough. So, transportation was definitely a factor.

Grant Ashley: OK, and that makes sense, because the Diocese of Buffalo doesn’t just cover Erie County. It also covers rural Orleans County or Allegany County or Wyoming County, or some of these less populated areas of western New York.

Alex Simone: Right, and we also heard from Father Mark Noonan. He’s one of the fathers from down around the Fredonia area. He handles some of those rural areas and said exactly that. He said, “Hey, the places that we’re working with, they’re very rural, and so if they start closing, well then the parishioners would have to drive even further.” And that kind of makes sense, especially when you look at how the diocese really refers to their parishes, right? They really refer to them as families, which could be a group of three parishes, it could be a group of six parishes, but they really kind of group a few together, which might make it easier then to figure out which ones they can live with closing down, because it’s like, “Well, we already grouped these three parishes together, so travel wise, population wise, it makes sense to readjust those things.”

Grant Ashley: I think that’s about all I have for you. Is there anything else that I missed that you think is important for our listeners to know about this moving forward?

Alex Simone: Yeah, I think just how it’s all going with the financials, they said that the number of registered households, 49% of parishes reported a decline. But 53% of parishes reported a decline from contributing households.

Grant Ashley: And contributing households are the number of households that are donating to the parish, correct?

Alex Simone: Yes, and Father Bryan Zielenieski said that it could be down to a few things. He was the one who really talked more about the financials and said that it could be maybe that families are just participating in the sacraments, and they’re not really participating outside of that. Or he said it could be other factors, like maybe it’s a recording error, and in this number of households, the residents have actually moved out or stopped attending — that kind of thing — and their names are just still listed.

Grant Ashley: All right. Well, that was WBFO’s Alex Simone. Alex, thank you so much.

Alex Simone: Absolutely, thanks for having me.