The number of Catholics in the diocese has dropped more than 12 percent during the past 15 years, from 546,100 in 2007 to 477,338 in 2012, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
During the same period, the total number of priests in the diocese dropped more than 20 percent from 646 to 512 — the number of active diocesan priests by almost 25 percent from 242 to 176, according to the directory.
In Cleveland, Boston, and other cities around the U.S., Catholic leaders are merging parishes, closing churches, importing priests and turning to laypersons to offset the shortage and shifts in the Catholic population in the U.S.
“It’s diocese by diocese,” said Melissa Cidade, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
From 1965 to 2012, the number of American priests shrank from 58,632 to 38,964, according to CARA data collected from dioceses around the U.S.
Overall, the number of Catholics in the U.S. grew from 45.6 million to 66 million, according to data collected by the center, located at Georgetown University.
While parish populations have dwindled in the Northeast and Midwest, large, new parishes are building new churches in the Southeast. “Catholics are following the same migrations as anybody else,” Cidade said.
In Cleveland, the diocese closed churches and schools, forcing parishioners to find new places to worship and obtain a parochial education. In California, laypersons have taken on additional responsibilities and priests from other countries have been brought in to offset the shortage of diocesan priests, Cidade said.
In establishing regions, the Cincinnati diocese joins Catholic leaders in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. “The archdiocese has been involved in planning since 1985,” said Wenke, one of the diocesan leaders of the planned change in the Dayton-Cincinnati region.
The diocese covers 19 counties including Hamilton, Montgomery, Miami, Butler, Greene, Warren, Clark, Champaign, Clermont, Logan, Preble and Darke.
Already in Dayton, parishes centered at Our Lady of Mercy, Queen of Martyrs, Corpus Christi, St. Paul, St. Rita, Precious Blood, Immaculate Conception, St. Helen, Holy Trinity, St. Joseph and Emmanuel churches have been reorganized in four pastoral regions meaning each region has one priest.
“We’re not talking so much about consolidating as we are about cooperating,” Wenke said. “We’re addressing these as the need presents itself.”
In heavily populated, affluent areas including Mason in Warren County, Centerville in Montgomery County and West Chester and Liberty townships in Butler County, single-parish regions will be established.
While other planned changes hinge on variables including available priests and changing demographics, Wenke said 2013-2015 “will be the years when we experience the most significant change.”
Once a new, larger St Mary Catholic Church is built in Springboro, parishioners who had attended current church in Franklin and members of the St. Augustine parish in Waynesville are expected to begin attending masses there.
The St. Mary parish council agreed to the move, that is delayed until fund-raising for the new church, to be located in a high-growth area near the Montgomery-Warren County line.
“It wouldn’t be my first choice for relocation,” said Dan Darragh, a member who lives in Franklin. “I understand why it’s being done.”
Unlike the 100-year-old sanctuary in Franklin, the new church will have enough room for the growing congregation. The move also is expected to draw back parishioners who were traveling to Miamisburg and Middletown to avoid traffic and crowding at masses.
The pastor, Father Jim Manning, also is president of Alter High School.
“Many of them are doing double-duty just because there’s so few of them,” said Darragh, part of the parish council adopting the change. “There just aren’t going to be enough priests.”