Future uncertain for three Camden County parishes

St. Rita Cascia Roman Catholic Church in Bellmawr. (Google StreetView)

Buddy may be the only member of St. Rita of Cascia parish in Bellmawr unconcerned that his church might close.

But then, Buddy is a dog.

The pastor's golden retriever is a familiar sight in this Roman Catholic congregation as he trots down the aisle most Sunday's alongside the Rev. Carmel Polidarmo.

Both were in their usual high spirits Sunday, greeting parishioners as they exited onto the sidewalk shortly before noon.

"How you doing?" Polidarmo asked an older couple. "Here they come," he said to an approaching family. "Are you praying hard, or hardly praying?" he asked a middle-aged man, who laughed and clapped him on the arm.

Despite the smiles, there is a cloud over St. Rita's, and nearby St. Joaquim's, and the Emmaus Catholic Community in Mount Ephraim.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden notified their pastors last month that he might soon have to close at least one of the parishes because of dwindling attendance and declining financial resources.

"Oh, I would hate that," Dolores Krause, 54, said as she headed into St. Joachim's on Sunday. "I've been going here since I was 5 years old.

Christine Helder, 61, of Westville, said she'd been through enough closings already, and the closure of St. Joachim's would be painful.

Bernadette Coskey felt the same way about St. Francis de Sales in Barrington, where she was hurrying to catch the 9:30 Mass. "We joined in 1976. All my four children went to school here," she said.

Four years ago it became a "worship site" of St. Rita's, where Sunday Mass and the occasional wedding are celebrated.

Even as a worship site, Coskey said, "it still feels like a family."

Closing St. Rita's would be very sad, Mary Knighton, 81, said as she headed into the 10:30 Sunday Mass at St. Rita's. "I've been with it since it was built," she said, glancing at the cornerstone that read 1967.

"It's a beautiful church. I feel welcome here," she said. "And the pastor is very, very nice."

And yet Knighton was one of only 97 people who made their way Sunday into St. Rita's spare, modern interior - a space designed to seat 900.

Polidarmo was sounding philosophical, however.

"What comes, comes," he said after most of his parishioners had left.

On March 24, he said, the bishop and his parish study team will meet with him and the pastors of the two other parishes to discuss such metrics as Sunday Mass attendance, financial giving, and baptism-to-funeral ratios as they try to figure which might close and which remain.

This was not supposed to happen.

Five years ago, when Bishop Joseph Galante, Sullivan's predecessor, was closing and consolidating nearly half his parishes, he foresaw that the larger parishes remaining would turn into "vibrant church communities."

St. Rita's, St. Joachim's, and Emmaus are what remain of the consolidations and closures of eight former parishes, but even they are struggling.

Peter Feuerherd, spokesman for the six-county Diocese of Camden, said it appeared these mostly blue-collar communities are having a hard time holding on to their young people, and the young Catholics who remain display less interest in attending Mass than their parents and grandparents.

"It's my understanding there are only about 8,000 Catholics" living in the boundaries of the three standing parishes, Feuerherd said. Sunday Mass attendance across the diocese hovers at about 20 percent.

But the fate of the three parishes has not been decided, he said. "People have been jumping the gun," he said, but Sullivan is still studying the situation.

Polidarmo, who was the founding pastor of St. Rita's four years ago, said he would try to make a case for keeping the parish open when he meets with Sullivan at the end of the month.

But he said parishioners should not fault the bishop if he makes a painful decision.

"Bishops don't close parishes," he said. "People close parishes when they stop coming to church."



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