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Local input, Canon Law and procedures guide closure process

By RENEE WEBB
rwebb@catholicglobe.org

As more parishes go to oratory status as a result of Ministry 2025 pastoral planning in the Diocese of Sioux City, eventually they could be faced with making tough decisions about closing.

“One of the many reasons behind Ministry 2025 has been a change in our demographics,” noted Father Brent Lingle, director of pastoral planning. “We have fewer people in our towns than in the past. Some of the places that have gone to oratory may find that in the future, there are not enough people or resources to sustain the building and maintenance.”

If that happens, he noted the pastor and former members of the oratory may have to make the difficult recommendation to close the oratory and decide what to do with the building.

The decision to close, Father Lingle stressed, always starts at the local level with the pastor and his advisors, such as the finance council, pastoral council, a building committee and parish directors. They could also consult with officials in the chancery office for input and feedback.

“Ultimately, the bishop is responsible for the final decision,” Father Lingle said. “He never makes this without consultation and feedback from the local level, his College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council.”

If a decision is made to close, there are guidelines and procedures to follow pertaining what to do with church buildings.

“Some of these are governed by Canon Law at the level of the universal church,” Father Lingle said. “We also have particular protocols and guidelines at the diocesan level to ensure that we are following Canon Law and civil law.”

A church building, he said, is consecrated and set apart for sacred worship, not secular use. Even if closed, the sacred character of the building is to be respected.

“We do not want to see any of our sacred spaced fall into misuse or be profaned,” said Father Lingle. “The Vatican is also very concerned that the proper protocols are followed so that church buildings no longer in use are not profaned.”

The church does not want the space used for something contrary to the very reason the building was built or contrary to the faith.

“That is why in many cases the building is razed,” he said. “This ensures against profanation. There are a very few limited circumstances when a church building gets sold after it has been deconsecrated by removing all of the sacred items.”

In the diocese, there are a few examples when a former church was sold to a local funeral home that reused the building for funeral services.

For instance, St. Mary Parish in Everly closed in 2004 and a year or two later, the building was purchased by Warner Funeral Home.

“We use it as a full-fledged funeral home. We have visitations there and also conduct funeral services at the facility,” said Brad Hawn, owner/funeral director. “It is also nice that families can utilize the kitchen for luncheons following the service.”

He pointed out the building is a wonderful fit for their purposes. It is one of four Warner Funeral Home locations, the only one that is located in a former church building.

“It is one of our favorite locations because the church happened to be all ground level and it was easy to turn into a funeral home because it had a sanctuary area that the families are able to utilize if they have no church affiliation,” Hawn said. “And in the case of elderly people, sometimes they like the smaller feeling; the church isn’t overly large so it was a perfect fit.”

Generally, Father Lingle added, they would not sell a church building to another religion.

“We also would not sell it to anyone without an assurance of what the building would be used for,” he explained. “In some cases, we might also add a clause in the contract that would stipulate that; for example, a funeral home would take over the building, if they would cease to operate, the diocese would have the first right at the building.”

There is different criteria for other parish property that are not sacred spaces such as church halls and rectories. These are considered real estate that belongs to the church and can be sold.

“The parish would still be obligated to seek permission from the bishop to liquidate assets and property after consultation,” Father Lingle said. “The same moral and ethical principles would apply. We would not sell a parish hall or rectory to someone or some organization that would be in opposition to the Catholic Church.”

Through the years, he acknowledged, people have sacrificed to build churches in order to reflect the majesty and splendor of God. The sacred spaces are places where great moments of faith have taken place, the priest added, greatest of all, the celebration of Mass.

“A decision to close a building, to tear it down or ‘deconsecrate’ it is never made lightly,” stressed Father Lingle. “We have to remember that while a church building is important, the church is more than a building, it is the people of God that are on a journey to heaven.”

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