Faith in the future

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Yesterday morning, clergy and church officials from the Diocese of Springfield formally announced the decision to close six of its 10 churches in Pittsfield.

The churches slated to close on or by July 1 are All Souls' Mission at 51 Pembroke Ave., Holy Family at 133 Seymour St., Mount Carmel at 359 Fenn St., St. Francis' at 80 Morningview Drive, St. Mary's at 665 Tyler St. and St. Teresa's at 290 South St.

Parishioners learned of the closings in a letter from Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell that was read during weekend Masses.

The four remaining churches are Sacred Heart, St. Charles', St. Joseph's and St. Mark's.

In the meantime, local church leaders and diocesan officials soon will begin integrating parishioners into the remaining churches, aligning pastors and determining how to market and sell the buildings.

David Yon, a parishioner of St. Charles' Church, which will remain open, said he was not surprised by the diocese's announcement. Yon, who previously attended several of the churches scheduled to close, said the decision was "a long time coming."

"But it doesn't make it easier," he said.

Monsignor John J. Bonzagni, head of the pastoral planning office for the diocese, said the closings have been part of local dialogues for more than a decade.

The diocese outlines and presides over Catholic service regions in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. It has struggled to support its 117 parishes amid a 26 percent drop in attendance between 1996 and 2006.

In Berkshire County, five churches have closed since 2004: St. Francis' (Mission) in Lee in September 2006, St. Matthew's Chapel in Becket in June 2006, Notre Dame Church in North Adams in July 2005, St. Raphael's in Williamstown in 2007 and Notre Dame Church in Pittsfield in October 2004.

In 2005, the diocese consolidated Pittsfield's three Catholic schools into two campuses, closing Sacred Heart Elementary School.

Currently, the Catholic community of Pittsfield is served by seven priests within the 10 church buildings. St. Mary's and St. Francis' share the same pastor, the Rev. Paul A. Bombardier. St. Joseph's and Holy Family are linked by Monsignor Michael A. Shershanovich, pastor.

The new plan will reduce Catholic Masses in the city to a four-parish/five-priest model; one priest will be designated to a church as a parochial vicar.

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Asked about the fates of the existing priests, Bonzagni said, "Any reassignment is at the sole province of the bishop."

He also noted that the Pastoral Planning Committee still is making its own analysis of other regions in the state. Although no other closings are expected at this time, he added, "The biggest change in Berkshire County is going to be Pittsfield."

The latest decision to close the churches exceeds the recommendations based on a University of Massachusetts study released in March last year.

Also known as the Mullin Report, the study called for the closings of only Holy Family and St. Mary's and suggested that the diocese merge or link other parishes in Berkshire County for financial purposes.

Bonzagni said the diocese's decision came from a series of listening sessions held with about 124 parish representatives in Pittsfield on Oct. 16 and Nov. 17.

The details and recommendations from these sessions were released yesterday in an interim report for Pittsfield.

"What we heard coming out loud and clear was we need to do this. ... There's no reason to wait," Bonzagni said.

Now that the announcement of closings has been made, the details of dissolving the churches are in the hands of local leadership. The diocese will be in charge of the marketing and sales of the church buildings.

"This group knows what people need," Bonzagni said.

The Bombardier and Shershanovich have both been through consolidations and closings before, as has the Rev. Christopher A. Malatesta, pastor of the neighboring St. Agnes' Church in Dalton.

Malatesta said that, over the next few days, a deanery of the diocese will convene to form committees to determine how to properly dissolve the six churches, from preserving assets and traditions to providing support and solace for parishioners as they transition into a new house of worship. A calendar of committee meetings could be in place by the end of the week.

"Our community will come together to reflect on reality at this time," said the Rev. John C. Salatino, pastor of St. Mark's Church, which will welcome new members.

Malatesta said the best thing churches can do now is be there and be open for its parishioners.

"Let them be part of the dialogue. People need to be involved," he said.


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