Vermont Catholic Church faces big drop in numbers
By Kevin O'Connor
STAFF WRITER | June 13,2010
Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
St. Augustine Church in Montpelier is seen under stormy clouds last week.
Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano approached the lectern and apologized for how the heat had sparked allergies that shrank his voice. But he and assembled members of the state's largest religious denomination knew that was the least of his challenges.
"You have been faithful year after year after year," he told churchgoers one recent evening. "We have been through some very difficult, difficult times."
Just that morning, front pages reported how the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese would sell its 32-acre, 125-year-old Burlington headquarters to pay some of the more than $20 million it has promised to settle almost 30 priest misconduct lawsuits.
"Yes, we are selling the diocesan central offices - so be it," the bishop told those gathered at Burlington's Christ the King Church, where 19 former altar boys reported child sexual abuse. "We will relocate and we will continue. The people who we serve are so much more important than bricks and stone and mortar."
But after years of dealing with a drop in its number of priests, Vermont's Catholic Church today is facing a decline in its number of parishioners - and, because of an awkward photo now on the Internet, yet another wave of embarrassing publicity.
'It is disturbing'
The 118,000-member diocese still dwarfs the state's next most popular religions, the 14,500-member United Church of Christ, the 11,963-member United Methodist Church, the 8,131-member Episcopal Church and the 6,500-member American Baptist Church.
All of Vermont's top faiths report declining involvement (a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranks the state 45th for overall worship attendance, 43rd for frequency of prayer and last for belief in God). But Catholic numbers have dropped precipitously - 25 percent from the diocese's 157,000 members in 1980 and 20 percent from its 149,000 members in 2005.
Five years ago, Matano was ordained on the same hopeful spring day that welcomed the naming of a new worldwide Catholic leader, Pope Benedict XVI. But upon taking office, the bishop discovered that Vermont priest numbers had decreased from 274 in 1975 to 81 in 2005, with the number expected to fall to 55 within a decade.
As a result, Matano unveiled a plan to close the state's smallest, most rural parishes and share clergy at the rest of what were then 130 churches (now 80 parishes and 44 outposts manned by 62 active clergy).
"It is disturbing to travel throughout this beautiful diocese and to realize what was and what now is," Matano wrote in the 2006 plan. "It is no longer those halcyon days of 1950 when vocations were plentiful and the Catholic Church had many in its ranks to provide for its many ministerial services."
'I do wish'
But 36 priest misconduct lawsuits quickly overshadowed news of the church's future. A month after the plan's release, the diocese paid a then record $965,000 to settle the first case about to go to trial. Weeks later, fearing the potential cost of the scandal, it moved to protect local parishes by placing each in a charitable trust - a move that sparked outcry from the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"These five years have been difficult," the bishop recently told Burlington churchgoers, "but I have not carried the cross alone. You have all been a part of our diocesan struggle."
Last month, eight years after the state attorney general's office began to investigate, lawyers for the diocese and three dozen accusers agreed to settle all pending negligence lawsuits. Moving on to promote his annual fundraising drive for Catholic charities, Matano is encountering a new set of hurdles.
The bishop found attendance to be the most pressing problem when he entered Barre's St. Monica Church for a recent Mass.
"I do wish many others had joined us in prayer," he told about 50 area priests, older women and tuxedoed elders of the Knights of Columbus. "If the church is not filled, we are not doing our job."
Later, Matano departed from his prepared homily to address the small crowd.
"What you need are words of encouragement," he said. "The number of our brothers and sisters who are not with us at the Eucharist could become very discouraging."
"The church in Vermont is alive and well not because of any human initiatives," he added in Burlington, "but because our cornerstone is Jesus Christ, who said, 'Know I am with you always until the end of time.'"
Even so, some might suggest the diocese reach out through public relations. But the bishop, who declined reporters' interview requests upon his arrival in Vermont, continues to distrust the media.
This newspaper recently invited Matano to offer his opinion about the diocese's future. His office declined - in part, it said, because the Rutland Herald and The Times Argus repeatedly have printed comments against the church by David Clohessy, a former altar boy who filed a molestation lawsuit in Missouri before becoming the current national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Based on our past experience with your articles, and other reporters and news agencies in Vermont, I have no well-founded confidence that your article will be unbiased," the Rev. Daniel White wrote on behalf of the bishop. "In the future, please God, this confidence can be restored. Until such time, the diocese will continue to find alternative ways to speak to the faithful in Vermont and the public at large."
'Why would you?'
Those means are diminishing. Vermont, which once had 37 Catholic schools, now has 14; statewide enrollment of 3,200 students a decade ago is down to 2,300 today.
(That 28 percent drop compares to a 14 percent decrease in Vermont public school enrollment from a 1997 peak of 106,341 students in kindergarten through 12th grade to 91,239 today.)
Burlington's grades K-through-8 St. Joseph School, reduced to about 75 students, will close this month. Nearby Mater Christi School, expecting its fall elementary and junior high enrollment to drop almost 30 percent, is laying off teachers. And Rutland's Mount St. Joseph Academy, one of two parochial high schools in Vermont, is questioning its future with grades 9-12 attendance, as high as 600 in the 1960s, now at 80.
As for its own media outlets, the diocese folded its half-century-old biweekly newspaper, the Vermont Catholic Tribune, last year and replaced it with a website and monthly magazine. Those focus less on mainstream front-page news - the eight-year priest misconduct scandal was reported only in a few letters from the bishop - than on such articles as "Determining how you can and should contribute this year."
The current issue of the magazine sparked an unintended squall of Internet attention last week by picturing Matano, in an ordination ceremony, placing his hands on a priest kneeling before him.
"Why, in the midst of a sex scandal, would you put a photo on the cover that evokes the very act for which the scandal is known?" a blogger on www.theplaidcrew.com wrote in an item that was picked up by such national websites as The Atlantic Online and the Huffington Post.
'Prayer and faith'
The diocese hasn't commented publicly about the cover, although it recently removed the picture from its website.
The magazine itself includes several routine personnel items that show how the number of priests continues to decline due to retirements, death and a lower number of replacements. Last year, the diocese ordained four new clergymen in its once-a-year ceremony; this month, only one man will take vows.
"More than ever, I need your help," the bishop told people in the pews in Burlington. "More than ever, I need your support."
But even as Matano prayed for more churchgoers and charitable contributions, he reminded the few in attendance that numbers weren't everything.
"Sometimes we want to see very concrete and flourishing results," he said in Barre. "Do not underestimate how strong are your individual pillars of foundation which hold up this diocese. Prayer and faith will always be the only measure of success."