Catholic leaders mull closing Shoreham church
Cost is an issue, but not as much as the number of parishioners and participation. The bishop wants to have vibrant churches. We don’t have that right now.
— Terry Douglas
SHOREHAM — Christopher Coyne, bishop of the Burlington Catholic Diocese, is expected to decide later this fall whether to close St. Genevieve Church, a majestic place of worship that has also helped define Shoreham village’s streetscape for the past 142 years.
If it does close the Shoreham church, the Burlington Diocese could choose to maintain or dismantle the building, and either sell or rent the property.
“These are separate decisions, and the proceeds remain with the parish,” said the Father Luke Austin, who serves the congregations of St. Mary’s Church in Middlebury and the St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve parish.
It was an annual building inspection in April 2018 that revealed greater-than-anticipated plaster cracking in St. Genevieve’s interior walls and a more pronounced sag in the choir loft than had been expected, according to Austin.
A structural engineer who scrutinized the building last November recommended activities within St. Genevieve Church be suspended until temporary reinforcements were made to the loft. The engineer also recommended installation of new support posts, repairing the foundation where needed and more permanent stabilization of the choir loft, according to Austin.
Officials identified other major repairs for the church, including painting the exterior of the building and installing new stained glass windows.
Austin shared preliminary cost estimates for St. Genevieve repairs. They included $14,000 to repair rotting foundation supports, $5,000-$30,000 to stabilize the choir loft, $90,000 to replace the stained glass windows, and an as-yet undetermined amount for exterior painting.
The parish has a reserve fund, and some members of the congregation have expressed a willingness to raise more funds for St. Genevieve’s capital needs, Austin noted.
But dollars and cents alone won’t help salvage the building, according to Burlington Diocese officials, who also want to see more worshippers in the pews.
“From my understanding of the bishop, he asked the larger question of, ‘Yes, we can come up with the money, but is this a wise pastoral investment?’” Austin said.
Organized religion has been in decline in the United States for more than two decades. And a Gallup poll released in February 2017 indicated only 21 percent of adult Vermonters describe themselves as “highly religious.” This marked Vermont as the least religious state in the union, edging out Maine and Massachusetts.
As reported last year by the Independent, members of the First Congregational Church of Cornwall are starting to plan for a time when there may no longer be worshippers left to hear the gospel on Sundays. Congregation leaders circulated a townwide survey in which Cornwall residents were asked to weigh in on potential future uses of the historic church building at 2598 Route 30, should membership reach a point where the institution becomes unsustainable.
St. Genevieve hosts one weekly Mass: 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, during the warmer months, from May through October. St. Genevieve’s parish partner — St. Bernadette in Bridport — is a smaller and more energy-efficient building that hosts the weekly mass November through April. St. Genevieve’s Saturday masses can draw around 40 worshippers, according to Austin.
“The bishop wants to maintain that mass, it’s just a question of where it’s going to be,” he said.
St. Genevieve has, through most of its history, shared pastors with other area Catholic churches. It became a mission of St. Bernadette Church in Bridport when that building opened with a resident pastor back in 1941, according to a history provided by Austin, who is based at St. Mary’s Church in Middlebury.
When Father James Madden ended his tenure as the final resident pastor of St. Bernadette in 1994, that church congregation began receiving service from St. Mary’s, while St. Genevieve started receiving its spiritual nourishment from St. Paul’s in Orwell.
Then, in 2002, the Burlington Diocese created the current St. Bernadette-St. Genevieve parish that shares a pastor with St. Mary’s. Austin presided over mass and other Catholic functions at the Bridport, Shoreham and Middlebury churches.
The Diocese convened a meeting on Sept. 12 to discuss the future of St. Genevieve. That gathering drew around 30 people, 14 of whom provided feedback, according to Austin, who was there. He noted a majority of those who weighed in favored keeping the church open, citing such reasons as the historical importance of the building, fond family memories and a perception that closing St. Genevieve would run counter to the goal of attracting a new generations of worshippers.
“The sense I got from some of the people is this was a call to action — not in a negative sense, but that this was a wake-up call,” Austin said.
The current dialogue about closing churches and consolidating congregations is similar to the discussion under way at the Addison Central School District about potentially shutting down schools and merging school populations, Austin noted.
“It’s a beautiful country church and its very aesthetically pleasing,” Austin said. “In that regard, it’s difficult to think about it closing. But my fear is that if everyone is focusing on their own church (in Shoreham), I don’t want to lose all three of them.”
Shoreham resident Terry Douglas has been a St. Genevieve parishioner since 1975. She currently serves on the parish council. Douglas recalled the days when St. Genevieve had an active congregation that included a local choir, religious education for children, and occasional meals and special events.
But she’s seen activity at the church ebb during recent years. Fewer people are attending services.
“I see both sides of it,” she said. “I get how busy people are.”
She also acknowledged a 7:30 p.m. mass on Saturday can conflict with peoples’ social engagements. So some prospective churchgoers attend an earlier mass at a different church, or miss the service entirely. And when that happens, St. Genevieve has a tougher case justifying its future, officials said.
“The parishioners need to go to the church they are a member of,” Douglas said. “I think what is common with all of us — we go to the church with the mass that’s most convenient, rather than the one we belong to.”
She echoed agreed with Father Austin that St. Genevieve’s challenge goes beyond repairs and finances.
“Cost is an issue, but not as much as the number of parishioners and participation,” Douglas said. “The bishop wants to have vibrant churches. We don’t have that right now.”
Douglas said it would be heartbreaking for her to see St. Genevieve close, but she conceded the broader conundrum the congregation is facing.
“We’ve got a big church, but we don’t have the participation,” she reiterated. “We don’t have the members going to their own church. I think a lot of people feel that if they support it financially by making their weekly checks out to St. Genevieve, that that cuts it. It doesn’t. We need an active membership.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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