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Catholic church closures spread in the Northeast and Midwest. Not all are upset

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

COVID has changed the way people worship. A recent study showed even though many churches are now offering in-person services, people aren't returning to pre-pandemic attendance. Among Catholic churches in Chicago, this is compounding a problem they already had. They're losing people. Many parishes there have been forced to close or merge. Members are coming to terms with this new normal. From member station WBEZ, Adora Namigadde reports.

ADORA NAMIGADDE, BYLINE: Since her parish closed, 30-year-old Rosie Dominguez (ph) has been hopping around different churches around Chicago. None feel like the church she grew up attending.

ROSIE DOMINGUEZ: I have conversations with my father. He's like, Rosie, you know, the church is just, you know, the body of the people. I'm like, I understand that, but - and, yes, I know I can worship elsewhere, but it's just not the same.

NAMIGADDE: There are a third fewer parishes in Chicago today than there were five years ago. Recently, people are questioning the value of institutional religion on the whole. Catholicism is especially vulnerable. Michael Budde teaches Catholic studies at DePaul University.

MICHAEL BUDDE: You've got the pedophilia scandals. You have people who are not comfortable with a male-only clergy, for example.

NAMIGADDE: Budde also blames these recent church closures in part on the previous generation.

BUDDE: Most Catholic parents don't necessarily do a good job of not just teaching in a kind of - an informational sense, but modeling the kinds of practices that might allow their children to see that this is a defensible or an appealing way to live one's life.

NAMIGADDE: Budde says effectively modeling the faith could mean creating a series of practices and activities in the home. Things like praying as a family, volunteering or going to youth groups together promote faith. Punching in and out of church for Sunday Mass doesn't cut it.

JASON MALAVE: The number of priests, it was not increasing.

NAMIGADDE: Father Jason Malave is with the Archdiocese of Chicago. He says church leadership there consolidated in order to make the most of the parish's dwindling resources.

MALAVE: The number of the faithful at Mass on Sunday was not increasing. People's generosity to the parishes was not increasing. The only thing that was increasing was the amount of money that it cost to maintain the buildings, all the campuses that we find ourselves serving people on.

NAMIGADDE: There are some areas of the country where Catholicism is growing, mostly in the South. But closures are widespread across the East and Midwest. Not all members are upset about these changes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

NAMIGADDE: Dominick Maino's been singing in the choir at St. Bartholomew Parish in Chicago for more than two decades. The parish merged with two others this year in an initiative called Renew My Church. He says with more people, the choir sounds beautiful, and it's meant new relationships.

DOMINICK MAINO: One of our folks who came from another parish was naturally upset about what happened with Renew My Church. And I certainly commiserated with him. But then I said, you know, all that turmoil brought you to us, and that put a smile on his face.

NAMIGADDE: He hopes ultimately making his parish more robust will attract more people.

MAINO: What makes what has happened to us possible and even tolerable and make us more accepting of it is that we're doing it slowly. We're doing it so that we bring people together.

NAMIGADDE: But being Catholic, Maino says, takes patience. It literally takes faith. For NPR News, I'm Adora Namigadde in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adora Namigadde