Diocese of Buffalo Announces Plan to Reshape the Number of Parishes through Merger | Diocese of Buffalo

Diocese of Buffalo Announces Plan to Reshape the Number of Parishes through Merger

Buffalo, N.Y., May 28, 2024 – The Diocese of Buffalo today has announced that following a comprehensive and collaborative planning process directed by its Road to Renewal division, a plan was presented to Family of Parishes priests to merge approximately 34 percent of the diocese’s 160 parishes.

“The Diocese of Buffalo is facing multiple challenges including a significant priest shortage, declining Mass attendance, aging congregations and ongoing financial pressures brought about by our Chapter 11 filing,” explained Bishop Michael W. Fisher. “This plan resulted from the lessons learned as we brought parishes together in the parish family model and determined rather quickly that scaling back the number of parishes would best allow us to use our limited resources to help reenergize a spiritual renewal in the diocese.”

“These difficult changes associated with our renewal allow limited resources to be directed to the greatest needs in our community,” Bishop Fisher added, “The work of the Holy Spirit within our diocese and the support of the Western New York community has been an incredible blessing.”

The actual number of parishes merged will not be determined until clergy and parish leadership have an opportunity to review recommendations that will be proposed. They may either agree with the recommendations, or present an option for an alternative parish (or parishes) within their family for merger. Those determinations will be made between August 15 and September 1, 2024.

“To make the recommendations that will be presented to pastors, we examined parish demographics, sacramental participation, and financial support,” explained Rev. Bryan Zielenieski, Vicar for Renewal and Development, who leads the Road to Renewal effort. “We also looked at the variations of our urban, suburban and rural parishes because factors like poverty rates, availability of transportation, proximity and limited resources impact overall parish long-term vitality.”

The Road to Renewal in the diocese employs a collaborative model that saw the current 160 parishes grouped into 36 Families of Parishes which were announced in December 2021. An initial group of six Families of Parishes soon thereafter began the pilot phase. When the Road to Renewal process began, Renewal staff contacted dioceses throughout the country and 67 percent of dioceses responding were implementing, or had implemented, a collaborative model in their diocese.

Soon, pastors will be provided with detailed materials to lead consultations within their Family of Parishes. Once the parishes to be merged are identified and approved, the process to begin merging those identified parishes is expected to begin this fall.

The recommendations distributed the past two weeks to all vicariates of the Diocese of Buffalo were created utilizing the following process.

Renewal Team

  • Fr. Bryan Zielenieski, Vicar for Renewal and Development
  • Deacon Greg Moran, Strategic Planning for Renewal
  • Sara Osmanski, Project Coordinator for Renewal
  • Tara Potzler, Program Specialist for Renewal
  • Sr. Louise Alff, Evangelization and Outreach/Inreach Coordinator for Renewal

Renewal/Chapter 11 Task Force Group

  • Fr. Peter Karalus, Vicar General
  • Fr. Bryan Zielenieski, Vicar for Renewal
  • Jim Beardi, chair of Chapter 11 Task Force Group
  • Msgr. Robert Zapfel, Vicar Forane, Northern Erie Vicariate, Diocesan Finance Council
  • Karen Howard, Diocesan Finance Council
  • Fr. Mark Noonan, Pastor, ONE Catholic, Family #11
  • Rick Suchan, COO Diocese of Buffalo
  • Melissa Potzler, Chancellor, Diocese of Buffalo
  • Albert Gress, CFO Diocese of Buffalo

 

Process:

  1. Data from parish yearly financial reports for the last ten years was reviewed and presented to the Renewal Team by the finance and audit departments of the Diocese.
  2. Data from parish yearly sacramental reports was shared from the research and planning department of the Diocese with the Renewal Team.
  3. Census data, demographic data, geography, historical parish relationship data was all compiled by the Renewal Team
  4. Use of Catholic Leadership Institute data collected from each parish in the Diocese analyzing age, contribution levels, activity levels and spiritual life of people and parishes.
  5. All data and trending was analyzed by Renewal Team and recommendations took a rough draft form
  6. Bryan engaged in conversations with each Vicar Forane to discuss rough drafts, and ask for further insight and recommendations from their expertise in the vicariates.
  7. Bryan modified recommendations putting them into a more final version with justifications for the recommendations.
  8. Share the process and recommendations with other Diocese who have gone through this for their input and guidance.
  9. The recommendations were shared with the Renewal/Chapter 11 Task Force Group for review and modifications.
  10. Bryan made modifications to recommendations and justifications for final draft version to be presented to Vicariate meetings with Priests, Deacons and Trustees.

FAQs on Rightsize & Reshape

A final number has not yet been determined. This will be determined by September 1, following a careful and consultative process involving the diocese and respective parish families. 

Road to Renewal will provide data (including numbers of registered households per parish, how many of those registered households are actively contributing, and numbers of sacraments and new Catholics initiated through faith formation) to priests, and will offer recommendations for possible mergers. It is important to note that recommendations will not be made exclusively by financial factors, but geographical considerations and strategy will also be part of the recommendations 

As explained originally by Road to Renewal (as seen on the website’s FAQ page), this program was designed to revitalize parish life by creating a parish family model. In our early communications it was stated that the Renewal was not about reducing parishes. When looking at our parishes today and the circumstances of our Diocese, it is apparent that changes need to be made. A process is now being put into place that will help families of parishes rightsize and reshape appropriately for the future.  

Since Road to Renewal began in 2019, we have measured and observed trends, including registered households per parish, sacramental events, operating balances of parishes, the number of available priests to lead in ministry, and the level of participation by parishioners, all of which significantly compound the issue. The statistics are telling. Nearly half of parishes throughout the diocese are seeing declines in registered households, while more than half of our parishes average just one Baptism per month. Only 12 percent of our parishes initiated new Catholics this past Easter Vigil.  

Our Diocesan Chapter 11 reorganization is also helping us to take a hard look at what properties and resources are really needed as the Diocese moves into the future. The infrastructure we have is not scaled appropriately to the current populations, trends or data we have for today moving into the future.  

Parishes, legally, are not “closed.” Historically, when church buildings closed, the parish was absorbed by another existing parish, enlarging the latter.  

No, but Chapter 11 is helping us to take a hard look at ourselves to determine what our future needs to look like. The reorganization, along with the Renewal will help us to continue the mission of the Diocese of Buffalo and its parish families, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ as robustly as possible, and to continue to be responsible stewards of our available resources, including people.  

As we continue this consultative process with parish families, parishes with existing elementary schools will be evaluated just as parishes without schools will be evaluated. There is also a Catholic Schools Strategic planning group that is helping guide our schools and Catholic Education into the future, working very closely with the Road to Renewal

Is a parish community introducing people to and helping them encounter the person of Jesus Christ? Is active outreach happening to nurture and grow the Catholic community and others? For example, are they celebrating baptisms on a frequent and regular basis? Do they engage youth with programming aimed at bringing them together to share and discuss their faith, including evangelization? Do they engage seniors with similar programming? Does the parish community accommodate Bible study groups? Is the parish community utilizing faith formation initiatives to welcome, educate, and support people who seek to become Catholics?  

Like every institution in our community, we are all always in a state of renewal and evaluation. It is our sincere hope that this reshaping of the diocese will successfully reinvigorate the Catholic faith in Western New YorkBut, as with all complex and involved processes, we will continue to monitor family of parish vibrancy and assess the trends which have led us to these recommendations. Our Church will always be relevant, and we will continue to spread the Gospel to all eight counties of Western New York.