The Archdiocese of Baltimore said Wednesday evening said that it had finalized a “heart-wrenching” church merger plan that will reduce the number of Catholic parishes from 61 to 23 and close half of its places of worship in the city and neighboring suburbs.

Archbishop William E. Lori’s announcement followed three packed listening sessions on the Seek the City to Come plan that church leaders held with community members after revealing their preliminary plans in mid-April. Many residents pleaded with church leaders not to eliminate individual parishes, but the final plan closely tracks the initial recommendations.

Church leaders have been struggling to deal with dwindling attendance at Sunday Mass while maintaining places of worship that in many cases date back to the 19th century and require costly renovations.

Lori called the decision “heart-wrenching but necessary and overdue.” He said it will allow the archdiocese to direct resources into mission and ministry rather than leaking roofs, crumbling walls and failing electrical systems and plumbing, according to a news release from church leaders.

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“While these decisions are difficult, I believe they hold great promise for the future of the Church in Baltimore City,” Lori said in a statement. “We were guided by the Holy Spirit whose voice was discerned in listening to the voices of the faithful throughout the city and in prudently considering the challenges and possibilities that lay before us.”

An attendee raises her hand to provide comment during a listening session on the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Seek the City plan on April 25, 2024 in Baltimore. The final version of the plan would close nearly half of the churches in the city and parts of Baltimore County. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

The roots of American Catholicism run deep in Baltimore. In 1789, Pope Pius VI appointed Father John Carroll of Upper Marlboro as the first Catholic bishop in the United States and picked Baltimore to be the first diocese, according to a Church history.

Baltimore’s Basilica was built in the early 19th century, serving for a time as the nation’s only Catholic cathedral.

As waves of immigrants arrived in the city, pushing its population close to 1 million in 1950, the Catholic Church constructed new churches to serve them, many in close proximity to one another. The archdiocese noted that factors such as “disinvestment, structural racism and white flight” contributed to a sharp decline in Baltimore’s population, which stood at around 586,000 in 2020.

In the mid-1900s, Auxiliary Bishop Bruce Lewandowski said in a recent interview, there were more than 250,000 people worshipping at Baltimore’s Catholic churches. Today, about 5,000 to 8,000 attend Sunday Mass in the city, and many of them come from the suburbs.

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Church leaders have said the “dramatic realignment” was the result of two years of listening sessions and work groups, with a special emphasis on the needs of the city’s Black and Latinx communities. The final plan consolidates churches based on geography and the needs of the parish communities.

Lewandowski said last month that the proposal was not related to the archdiocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy in September, before a state law went into effect allowing more survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits. Last year, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General released a 456-page report outlining decades of heinous sexual, physical and emotional abuse by more than 100 members of the clergy.

The recommendations released last month called for reducing the number of parishes in the city and parts of Baltimore County from 61 to 21 and cutting the number of worship sites from 59 to 26. Under the final plan, the archdiocese would maintain 30 worship sites, four more than initially proposed.

Archbishop William Lori is shown in his conference room on Sept. 28, 2023. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Church leaders said they carefully considered population loss in the city, and the effects of past disinvestment in Black communities. For that reason, they said they sought to maintain parishes in historically Black communities.

Among the churches spared in the original — and final — plans were St. Ambrose in Park Heights and St. Bernardine in Edmondson Village. The archdiocese also noted that both St. Francis Xavier and St. Peter Claver “hold historical importance in the life of the Church and for Black Catholics specifically” and will remain open. However, three other churches were folded into St. Francis Xavier in East Baltimore: St. Ann’s, St. Wenceslaus and St. Ignatius.

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The archdiocese also said Wednesday that it sought to ensure that the plan reflected the “rich diversity” and “ethnic traditions” of its members, including the Polish congregation at Holy Rosary, Italian parishioners at St. Leo’s, and Filipino members at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Holy Rosary will continue as an “additional worship site” in the redrawn Sacred Heart of Jesus parish, while merged parishes will be based at St. Leo’s and Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Ralph Moore, a dedicated parishioner at St. Ann’s on Greenmount Avenue, said he’s disappointed that after so many church members spoke out about the archdiocese’s plan, church leaders only made a handful of changes.

”As trite as it may sound, the feeling that I have tonight is that they’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Moore said.

The parish that St. Ann’s will merge with, St. Francis Xavier, is another historically Black congregation that is located a mile away.

But Moore said he belongs to an activist congregation — members of St. Ann’s have been instrumental in the campaign to canonize the first African American saint, among other causes — and they have talked about moving their weekly worship to the rectory next door rather than merging with another church, if they can find a priest to lead them.

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To Moore, the Catholic Church has itself to blame for much of its decline. He wonders what might be different if the church weren’t still “stuck in the Middle Ages,” if it had ordained women as priests and spoken more readily to the social justice causes important to members in his congregation.

”If the church had been thinking, they could have avoided this,” he said.

Marysia Nowicki, who has attended Mass at Holy Rosary Church on South Chester Street for almost 30 years, said the decisions don’t feel fair. The Romanesque Revival church would remain open but no longer have a parish seated there.

“I’m disappointed. It’s terrible,” Nowicki said.

Nowicki said she never thought the archdiocese would move forward with the decision. The church is financially stable, and attendance has not decreased significantly over the years.

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View of Holy Rosary Church located on South Chester Street in Baltimore on May 22, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

She and others in the parish are worried they are one step closer to losing their church. Losing that would mean losing a historical community hub, where Polish people gather to remember their culture.

”This is just the last thing that we have here,” she said.

In South Baltimore, church leaders wrestled with what to do with three 19th century churches located in close proximity to one another: Holy Cross and St. Mary Star of the Sea in Federal Hill, and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Locust Point. A church leader told parishioners last month that it would cost millions to renovate all three.

The archdiocese’s initial plan called for merging the three, with Holy Cross serving as the sole worship site. The final plan maintains Our Lady of Good Counsel as “an additional worship site.”

The effects of the changes will be felt across the city. West Baltimore would lose three of five churches: St. Edward, St. Gregory the Great and St. Pius V.

After hearing an outcry from the parishioners at St. Veronica in Cherry Hill when its recommended closure was announced last month, Lori reversed course, and the doors of this parish will also remain open.

In Southwest Baltimore, Lori agreed to spare Our Lady of Victory, with St. Joseph’s Monastery kept as an additional worship site. Both were targeted for closure in the initial plan. However, Transfiguration Catholic Community at 775 W. Hamburg St. was moved onto the final list of churches slated for closure. St. Benedict and St. William of York would both be folded into new parishes.

The archdiocese said “the process for parish mergers will begin immediately and each will move forward on an individual timeline.”

“New investment in ministries and buildings will follow and careful consideration will be given to any church property that will eventually be sold to ensure responsible reuse for the community,” church leaders said in a news release. “All assets and debts that belong to a parish will stay with that parish or follow that parish when merged into a newly formed parish. The parishes are, and will remain, separate entities from the Archdiocese.”

Moore, however, was critical of church leaders. He said they did nothing as attendance declined and now they’re blaming the people in the pews and “trying to do a quick fix.”

The question now, he added, is what Lori and other leaders in the diocese are willing to give up themselves. There’s going to be a lot of anger in the church this coming Sunday, he said, “and I think a lot of people are gonna leave.”

This story has been updated to say that the three South Baltimore churches were built in the 19th century, not the 18th century.