It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of Catholic priests here in the United States. Virtually all dioceses and archdioceses are scrambling to figure out how to cope with the situation. In the Archdiocese of Detroit they have been working on constructing a plan for the future since 2004. Representatives from each parish have been a part of the planning process. A few weeks ago, the proposed plan that the representatives came up with was made public. That plan would have 9 parishes close and another 60 merge into 21. These are pretty drastic but unfortunately necessary changes. They aren’t the first parish closings in the Archdiocese of Detroit and likely won’t be the last.

At some point in February 2012, Archbishop Allen Vigneron will announce which of these changes, recommended by parish representatives, will need to be implemented. It is expected that the plans approved by the Archbishop will be implemented immediately and completed by June 2012. As you can imagine, it’s made for some anxious times for many metro-Detroit Catholics. Nobody wants to see their beloved church and Catholic community closed or merged. Everyone is hoping their parish will be spared. But at the same time we know that can’t be.

As a Catholic, I understand how difficult it can be to let go of one church and begin worshiping at another. Over the years you develop friendships and allegiances with neighbors and church staff that are difficult to replace at a new parish. You’ve established routines over the years and there’s comfort in the familiarity of knowing what to expect in your parish throughout the liturgical year.

It’s even more difficult for the Catholic genealogist and family historian. Parish records get relocated. Family histories that are tied to a given parish for several generations must end. Traditions that are tied to the church will come to an end as well. A Catholic church and the Catholic faith are ties that bind many families over generations. These are institutions that are held as sacred. Respected. Honored. It’s difficult to imagine life without them.

The houses my grandparents and great grandparents lived in after they immigrated from Poland to Detroit are all gone now. One by one they were razed as a result of urban blight and urban renewal. Of the 6 Detroit churches my ancestors had strong family ties with, 1 parish was closed and the building razed and 1 parish was closed but the building remains. The other 4 churches are still standing and have active parishes but few registered parishioners. Who knows how much longer that will be the case? They are in neighborhoods that have few houses left standing and they rely heavily on people coming in from the suburbs to attend Mass. I suspect a couple of these churches will be closed. That makes me very sad.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church

I can’t revisit my grandparent’s houses. With those buildings no longer existing I’ve relied on visiting their parish churches to connect with them. Whenever I attend Mass at one of those beautiful old churches I can’t help but think of them. I run my hand along the back of the pew during Mass and wonder if they sat in that same space and touched that same pew. I go to Mass and walk down the same aisle they walked down for communion more than 120 years ago. I make my confession in the same confessional they did and wonder about what sins they may have confessed when it was their turn to talk to the priest. I gaze at the same stained glass windows I know they gazed at when the beautiful morning sun came streaming through and set the colors ablaze. And I wonder about the glory of God the same way I know they must have.

When I attend my local suburban church I don’t have those same connections. Even though I’ve attended there with my immediate family for years, the type of connection I feel is not the same. It’s not that deep familial connection with the past. I would hate to see it close but I wouldn’t miss it like I would miss the old churches of my ancestors.

What about you? Have you visited the churches where your ancestors worshiped? Are they even still standing? Perhaps it’s not too late for you. Whether you live in metro Detroit where church closings are imminent or another area of the country, you may lose the opportunity to do so soon if you haven’t already. The shortage of priests isn’t going away soon. More church closings are probably coming to a diocese near you. Take the opportunity now to visit the churches of your ancestors. You’ll be glad you did.