St. Patrick: the patron saint of parish closings?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 17, 2018

(This column, written six years ago, is re-posted annually by popular demand.)

Needless to say, there is no patron saint of parish closings.

The closing of a parish is a tragedy. A parish church is more than just a building. It is a repository of memories: of the children baptized there, the happy couples married, the parents mourned and buried. It is a testimony to the faith of the Catholic families who scrimped and saved and sacrificed to build a suitable house of worship for their community. It is a place of prayer, sanctified by the fervent pleas of people in trouble and the exultant joy of those to whom favors had been granted, the innocent praise of young children and the anxious worries of their parents and grandparents. Above all it is a house of God, where our Eucharistic Lord has reigned from his humble throne in the tabernacle. To close such a building—to turn it over to secular use—to let condos and boutiques grow up in the space where the faith once flowered—is unspeakably sad.

The closing of a parish is an admission of defeat. If the faithful could support a parish on this site at one time, why can they not support a parish today? American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate. Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills—and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry.

Parish closings are commonplace in America today, and prelates are praised for their smooth handling of what is seen as an “inevitable” contraction of the Church. Why is it inevitable?

There are times, I realize, when parishes are doomed by demographic shifts. I have seen the places where two Catholic churches were built, literally across the street from one another: one for the benefit of French-speaking families, the other for their German-speaking neighbors. The neighborhoods have changed, and now that all the residents speak the same language—Spanish—there is no need for two churches.

Such cases, however, account for only a small proportion of the parish closings that we see in the US today. More typically the parish slated for closing is located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand, and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now, 50 years later. No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don’t care enough about the faith to keep them open.

In other instances the parishes close because although the neighborhood is still populous, the Catholic families have moved out and the new residents come from different religious backgrounds, or come without religious beliefs. In such cases, we are told, the Church must accept the new reality and realize that the neighborhood cannot support a parish. But why should we make such a concession? Why should we admit that it is impossible to convert the new residents to our Catholic faith?

Parish closings are rarely—if ever—“inevitable.” There is an alternative. We could bring lapsed Catholics back to the Church. We could bring new Catholics into the fold. The Gospels ring with the Lord’s mandate to his apostles to evangelize—not to economize.

No, there is no patron saint of parish closings, and there never will be. But St. Patrick, whom we honor today, might well be called the patron saint of the alternative.

When St. Patrick, having escaped slavery in Ireland, arrived again as a missionary, the country was pagan. By the time he died the country was Catholic. He came into a “neighborhood”—an entire nation—that could not support a parish. But he did not accept what lesser souls might have considered inevitable. Instead he changed the conditions of the neighborhood, and soon a parish was created. And another and another and another. During his years of ministry in the once-pagan country, he is said to have consecrated over 300 bishops. (The number of priests that he ordained is not recorded; maybe 5th-century calculators didn’t have enough digits.) In Ireland today there are seven dioceses—not parishes, dioceses—that date back to the years of St. Patrick’s missionary work.

If St. Patrick could convert an entire nation, why can’t we? We have material advantages that would have left St. Patrick gasping: the ability to travel hundreds of miles in a day, the capacity for instant communication across the globe. Is the content of the Catholic faith less viable today than it was in the 5th century? Is the guidance of the Holy Spirit less valuable? I know how St. Patrick would answer those questions.

Yes, there is an alternative to parish closings. Two alternatives, in fact, and they are not mutually exclusive:

1) We should pray for the emergence of new Catholic missionaries today with the same great gifts as St. Patrick,


2) We should all—each one of us, beginning today—strive to act more like St. Patrick ourselves.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Mar. 18, 2017 11:46 AM ET USA

    A parish priest I have a few salient points. The era of "prince-bishops" has shifted into the age of "CEO-Episcopacy. Apostolic Succession has become a paper trail and the missionary Zeal of Patrick, Boniface, Ansgar, Cyril & Methodius has become legendary. The Holy Spirit, source of apostolic zeal, and catalyst for Faith has no static management model. Saints are safer in retrospect; they always frighten the complacent. Zealous pastors rise from zealous households which like disciples, cf above

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2012 8:30 AM ET USA

    My Faith was enlivened and nourished by the parish I was a part of for 12 years - back in the '50s, in Philadelphia. We could walk to the church for all that they offered to us and walk to our friends' houses, who also belonged to the parish. We knew the parish priests well, and my most fond memories come from there, unfortunately never to be seen again, I fear.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Mar. 20, 2012 9:02 PM ET USA

    "The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest." As remarkable was Saint Patrick's missionary work in converting Ireland to the Catholic faith in the 5th century, just as remarkable is how God prepared him for this great undertaking. The saint tells us that while a slave in Ireland he endured many hardships and deprivations and spent many a day and night in prayer and fastings. A worthy thought for Lent.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 17, 2012 12:07 PM ET USA

    I once heard a prelate speak to a group of people about a possible parish project. By the end of the discussion, the prelate had not made reference to Our Lord, Our Lady, or prayer at all during his talk. Everything was related to logistics and practical considerations. We have put the pious medieval spiritually aside and embraced the world of modernity full on. It has not come without a price. Bishop Sheen spoke of Empathy, Antipathy and Apathy. Of the three, apathy is the most inhuman.

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Mar. 17, 2012 10:14 AM ET USA

    This article needs to be distributed far and wide. It should be required reading for every bishop!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 21, 2010 12:24 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, priority is placed in the "bottom line." Furthermore, sexual abuse issues continue to exert considerable financial strain. Nonetheless, a Catholic bishop recently addressed a group wanting to form a parochial school. Despite plenty of references to financial considerations, there was not one mention of Our Lord, Our Lady or prayer. Not one. We have outgrown the uncomfortable piety of the past and become sensible, pragmatic citizens in the post-modern world. But at what "cost?"

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 19, 2010 10:26 PM ET USA

    Hear, hear. Most pastors, however, are content with the status quo. When I suggest simple marketing-evangelistic efforts, most just shrug and wonder why.

  • Posted by: rubbergloves012524 - Mar. 19, 2010 8:11 PM ET USA

    " Is the content of the Catholic faith less viable today than it was in the 5th century? Is the guidance of the Holy Spirit less valuable?" No and No. But the pagans are different. The Irish pagans of St. Patrick's time had a natural understanding of the transcendant. St. Patrick brought the Truth to those who were looking for it. Today's pagans are neo-pagans and the culture has convinced them that "any truth is good truth." God will supply grace as needed, but the 5th century it ain't.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 19, 2010 12:51 PM ET USA

    Perfect, just perfect. Thank you, Phil!

  • Posted by: dqualk - Mar. 18, 2010 12:51 AM ET USA

    YEAH! Excellent article for St. Patrick's Day! I will strive to evangelize my friends and neighbors. May the Lord use me to spread His Gospel. May we all accept the great challenges Christ places before us and evangelize our communities!

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Mar. 17, 2010 7:25 PM ET USA

    Amen! I often wonder, when I see a Catholic church sold to a protestant group, how is it they can make a go of it?