Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A questionable plan to close a thriving parish

Mass at Immaculate Conception in Levittown , another of the 16 parishes the archdiocese plans to close. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Mass at Immaculate Conception in Levittown , another of the 16 parishes the archdiocese plans to close. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
By Rick Durante

While the recent decision to consolidate parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was not surprising, parishioners of thriving Notre Dame de Lourdes were shocked to learn that our parish would be forced to close and merge with Our Lady of Peace.

The latter parish, in Milmont Park, has a budget deficit, fewer active members, a smaller campus, and a defunct school. In contrast, Notre Dame de Lourdes, in Swarthmore, is a model of a successful parish. It has a budget surplus, a growing parish school, structurally sound buildings, multiple active ministries, and an abundance of younger members. With its 10-acre, park-like campus and recent upgrades, Notre Dame is well suited to not only welcome new parishioners, but also absorb the less vibrant parish.

Even Our Lady of Peace Pastor Robert Feeney expressed surprise at the archdiocese's decision. The Inquirer reported that he "had joined other area pastors in recommending that the archdiocese close Our Lady of Peace."

The archdiocese's responses to questions about the proposed closing raise even more concerns.

Archdiocesan officials have cited the "strength of structure" of Notre Dame's buildings as a primary reason for their decision, claiming that continuing costs at Our Lady of Peace would be lower. When questioned further, officials said Notre Dame needs about $30,000 more in additional immediate maintenance, and that the expected maintenance disparity over the next 10 years is $125,000. These long-term maintenance projections are related to replacing windows in the Notre Dame de Lourdes School building, which the archdiocese plans to keep open.

However, an independent assessment of Notre Dame concluded that the buildings were "well-maintained, clean, and had no structural issues." Recent upgrades to the church include a new roof, doors, and flooring. At least 200 vehicles can be parked on the site, with plenty of room for expansion. The ample parking and location provide elderly and physically challenged members easy access to the church.

The archdiocese has indicated that Our Lady of Peace's rectory is superior due to its "six suites for priests." And yet the archdiocese has attributed the parish mergers partly to a lack of priests. Is it any wonder that Notre Dame's parishioners are skeptical?

Doubt and suspicion are exacerbated when one considers Notre Dame's budget surplus, combined with investment income from $2 million bequeathed to the parish by the late Swarthmore College professor Helen North, as well as forthcoming funds restricted to the parish school from the sale of North's home. All of that puts the parish in a position to address any short- and long-term maintenance issues.

The archdiocese had enough confidence in the long-term viability of the site to build the Don Guanella House on the Notre Dame campus. Eight developmentally disabled men will soon occupy the building next to the church, and they were expected to have a strong connection to the parish.

Despite the obvious viability of Notre Dame de Lourdes, Archbishop Charles Chaput has decreed that the mergers are meant "to address financial difficulties in the parishes." In this case, however, only one of the parishes - Our Lady of Peace - is experiencing financial difficulty, with a current debt of more than $800,000 and a continuing budget deficit, according to The Inquirer.

Another confusing aspect of the archdiocese's decision is the plan to keep Notre Dame de Lourdes Church open as a worship site only while continuing to operate the parish school. Aside from the fact that the schoolchildren, like the men of Don Guanella, won't have ready access to a fully operational parish church, where are the savings? Buildings on both campuses would still have to be maintained, unless the archdiocese has plans to shutter the Notre Dame site altogether.

The archdiocese's failure to provide satisfactory answers to these and other questions has encouraged speculation as to why the more valuable Notre Dame property was not selected as the seat of the new parish.

"You need to look at the big picture and all of the things together," an archdiocesan spokesman told The Inquirer.

The parishioners and supporters of Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish have looked at the big picture, and we have determined that the archdiocese's numbers do not add up. So we have respectfully asked the archbishop to reconsider the planned closure of the parish. Should he refuse, we pray that he will provide rational answers that can help the faithful understand the logic of closing a dynamic, vibrant, and stable parish.


Rick Durante lives in Milmont Park. rvpdurante@gmail.com

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