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Church pews could get a little more crowded for Evanston Catholics in the coming years if the Archdiocese of Chicago moves forward with possible consolidations involving four local parishes, as well as the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University.

In September, focus groups at St. Athanasius, St. Joan of Arc, St. Mary, St. Nicholas and Sheil began the complex process of reviewing various scenarios in which two or more parishes could merge. The possible restructuring of these institutions is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church (RMC) initiative launched in 2018 to maximize resources, revitalize faith communities and address the growing shortage of priests, which has left many parishes scrambling.

Dozens of Catholic churches and schools throughout Chicago and the surrounding areas have been shuttered or restructured over the past three years and it now appears that Evanston Catholics may also be called upon to accept changes.

A spokesperson for the archdiocese who declined to give his name said no decisions have been made yet and there is no fixed timeline in place. “We’ve had cases where [the parishes] have gone through the review process, and there’s been no merger,” he said.

Evanston churches are being asked to evaluate the following four different consolidation scenarios, but are free to offer solutions different from the options proposed by the archdiocese. No changes to parish schools are being proposed at this time.

  • Scenario 1: Sheil Center and St. Nicholas would remain independent. St. Athanasius, St. Joan of Arc and St. Mary would unite as one parish, with one, two or three worship sites.
  • Scenario 2: Sheil Center would remain independent. St. Mary and St. Nicholas would unite as one parish with two worship sites. St. Athanasius and St. Joan of Arc would unite as one parish with one or two worship sites.
  • Scenario 3: St. Nicholas would remain independent. St. Athanasius and St. Joan of Arc would unite as one parish with one or two worship sites. St. Mary and Sheil Center would unite as one parish with two locations in Evanston.
  • Scenario 4: St. Nicholas would remain independent. St. Mary and St. Joan of Arc would unite as one parish with one or two worship sites. St. Athanasius and the Sheil Center would unite as one parish with two locations in Evanston.

The Rev. Tom Baldonieri, administrator of St. Nicholas, shared some thoughts on the process via email. “We know that we are stronger and vibrant when we work together. This means seeing the big picture and in some cases it may mean unifying for the sake of vitality. Change can be painful and promising, with hopefulness for the future.”

St. Mary Catholic Church, at 1012 Lake Street, is one of five Catholic places of worship in Evanston reviewing consolidation scenarios proposed by the Archdiocese of Chicago. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

At a St. Athanasius town hall meeting October 17, parishioners discussed what the future might look like. Joel Jankowski, an RMC team member from St. Athanasius, spoke about the need for Evanston Catholics to adapt to changing circumstances.

“Our model of parish life was built for a different time,” said Jankowski, who went on to recall the days of his youth when Catholic churches served as cornerstones for the various ethnic communities they served.

Jankowski said Mass attendance in the archdiocese has decreased 27% over the past 20 years, a decline that is mirrored at St. Athanasius. “If we look at the numbers we can say, let’s consolidate church A and church B and we’ll meet [attendance] thresholds, but what we’re really trying to do is understand the next layer,” he said. “How are we going to grow and be a thriving Catholic community in Evanston?”

Evangelization, Jankowski said, will be a key component in keeping the Catholic Church vibrant in the years to come, and it’s a strategy that the archdiocese is embracing for the final phase of Renew My Church. Father Baldonieri confirmed that evangelization is the way forward. “Make disciples, build communities, inspire witness to Christ. These are the main pillars or goals,” he wrote.

On Monday, November 15 the Evanston churches are expected to complete a first draft of the feedback summary that will be submitted to Cardinal Blase Cupich, including recommendations regarding possible mergers based on input from each parish. Cardinal Cupich, the final decision-maker in the process, will consider the report as well as input from additional diocesan advisers, Jankowski said.

More details on the possible restructuring of Evanston parishes are available at any of the individual church websites. More information on Renew My Church can be viewed at archchicago.org.

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

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