Between them, Hugo and Sally Guidotti have worshipped at St. Michael Church in Hudson for more than a century. They have watched as priests have come and gone, as other churches have closed their doors, as Catholic schools have shut down.
Now as the Archdiocese of Boston proposes to group its 288 parishes into 127 collaboratives that would share priests and other staff, the Guidottis worry that a proposal to combine St. Michael’s with two Marlborough parishes, Immaculate Conception and St. Matthias, would bring more disruption if their church is assigned a new priest.
“That would not be a good idea for St. Michael’s,” Sally Guidotti said. “We’ve had a lot of changes.”
The archdiocese — which has closed more than 100 parishes since 1990, often to great resistance — has proposed merging operations as a way to keep the parishes open while conserving resources. One of the least popular parts of the new proposal calls for the appointment of pastors who are not from any of the parishes to lead the collaboratives.
Archdiocesan officials have said that bringing in a new pastor would prevent any perceived favoritism. But some parishioners are still uneasy.
“I’m a little worried about the existing people losing their jobs, with the new pastors coming in,” said John Anthony Volpe, St. Michael’s music director. “Working in a church, it’s a ministry, not just a job.”
Still, Volpe said, he is excited about the possibility of linking churches through the collaboratives. “I think it could be a great idea,” he said. “When you join parishes together, you have more evangelization.”
Archdiocesan officials have repeatedly tried to make clear that they see this plan as a way to keep churches open while addressing both the shortage of priests and the financial struggles of some parishes.
“This is far different from 2004,” said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “We’re not looking to suppress parishes. We’re not looking to close parishes.”
In 2004, the archdiocese closed nearly 80 parishes, and created some new ones, to stem a large financial deficit from running too many parishes with too few priests; some observers also pointed to costs from the growing number of sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against members of the clergy.
Donilon said the closings were deeply painful, but necessary to address the archdiocese’s “economic freefall.”
The plan to create pastoral collaboratives grew from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley’s desire for a long-term planning process to address the continuing shortage of priests, and bring more Catholics back to church.
Last year, O’Malley created a planning commission, and it suggested the collaboratives.
Then the cardinal asked parishes and priests to discuss the proposal with parishioners. They took surveys, and many wrote letters to the archdiocese about the proposal.
O’Malley will meet with priests again next month.
Gail Trainor, a pastoral liaison at St. Anselm Parish in Sudbury, said she understands the priest shortage, but is dismayed about the part of the proposal that would shift parish priests around. She says she hopes the ultimate plan will not be so destructive to parishes.
“I think people are hoping that solving this shortage of priests is done in a way that honors the church, as well as the people in the pews,” she said. “Working collaboratively is the only way that anything will be solved.”
At a community meeting to discuss the proposal in March at St. Michael Church in Hudson, parishioners asked many questions, including how many priests would oversee each collaborative. The local priests had no answers, saying only that the proposal is still a work in progress, but that the number of assigned priests could vary among collaboratives.
St. Michael and Immaculate Conception are vast churches built in the 1800s, with stained glass windows, intricately carved wood, and soaring arches. St. Matthias is the newest and smallest of the churches in its group, a 1963 brick building on a residential street.
St. Michael and Immaculate Conception both offer weekly Masses in English and Portuguese. The weekly bulletin of St. Michael Parish — Paroquia de Sao Miguel to the Portuguese parishioners — is written in both languages.
The three churches have already seen great change. In Hudson, two Catholic schools — St. Michael’s and Hudson Catholic High — closed in the past three years because of declining enrollment. Christ the King Parish was closed in 2000, and many of its parishioners joined St. Michael’s.
In 2004, the archdiocese closed two other Catholic churches in Marlborough, St. Ann’s and St. Mary’s. Some of their parishioners moved to the two remaining Catholic churches in town.
At least three priests affiliated with Immaculate Conception and St. Matthias have been dismissed from the clergy because of abuse allegations from decades ago.
Earlier this year, at a special church meeting on the proposed clusters, the Rev. Ron Calhoun read a letter to the archdiocese that he and the pastors from Immaculate Conception and St. Matthias had written together.
“Appreciating your difficult task and thanking you for all your hard work, we feel that serious issues might have been overlooked when considering a pastoral service team for Hudson and Marlborough,” he read.
The priests wrote that they have serious reservations about the proposed collaborative, and the ability of the combined parishes to meet the needs of their parishioners.
The priests at all three churches declined to discuss the proposal.
The new pastoral team would have to perform more than 200 funerals and about 200 baptisms a year, as well as to preach to more than 3,700 parishioners each weekend. The team would be responsible for 12 buildings, all at least 50 years old and some more than 100 years old.
That alone would be a full-time job, the pastors said. St. Michael’s also carries a $1 million debt on the old school building. In addition, Immaculate Conception’s school would bring added duties for the pastoral team, including extra Masses and parent association and school board meetings.
The three parishes are ethnically diverse, including Anglo, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Hispanic communities, the letter said. The two Marlborough parishes have three communities of religious women. There are two nursing homes in the two towns, as well as assisted-living and senior housing centers. All the parishes minister to homebound parishioners.
“I think nobody’s in favor of doing this,” said Hugo Guidotti, “but it appears that something might have to be done to keep the churches viable. It’s probably a better alternative than closing some churches.”
Guidotti said he believes that the Catholic Church needs to make more fundamental changes, such as allowing priests to marry, to address the problems of low attendance.
Sally Guidotti, who has been the organist at Saint Michael’s for more than 50 years, also worries about the changes.
“St. Michael’s has been my parish from the very beginning of my life,” she said.