The Archdiocese of Mobile’s decision to close a long-time downtown parish has members asking questions.
St. Joseph parish, established in 1857 for German immigrants, will be officially closed in January 2018, the Rev, Michael Farmer said. St. Joseph parishioners will be incorporated into the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Farmer, who serves as pastor at the church that offers one, 9 a.m. Sunday mass, said the tough decision was made for a couple of reasons.
For one, Farmer said there wasn’t much in the way of a parish life at the church. He said since 2009, when the Cathedral parish took the church over from Jesuits, 85 people regularly attended the single Sunday mass and it hadn’t grown substantially over the last eight years. Outside of a few weddings, not much happened outside of the regularly scheduled service.
“We came to the realization that what constitutes parish life was not there,” he said. “No other activities were taking place.”
In addition, Farmer said the Archdiocese had to look at the parish’s financial situation. The parish was only bringing in enough collections to pay utility bills on the 110-year-old church at 808 Springhill Avenue, Farmer said. The building’s other expenses, like insurance, were being paid through an endowment set up by the Jesuit priests who managed the church until 2009.
Despite fears from parishioners, Farmer said the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, would not be torn down. In fact, he added that there are no immediate plans for the building, although the Archdiocese would eventually like to sell it.
All of the sacred items in the building will be removed, Farmer said. The hope there is that St. Ignatius parish — another former Jesuit parish — will be able to use the items inside a new church building, Farmer said. A fundraiser should begin soon for the new St. Ignatius parish church building.
“They’ll integrate the pieces into a new church with a traditional look,” he said. “It will be a positive option in a very sad situation.”
As a result of the news, Patricia Fellis, a parishioner with ties to the church going back generations, doesn’t know where she’ll attend mass in 2018. She said she’s losing the church she was raised and married in.
“I’m obviously going to find somewhere else to go,” Fellis said. “I”m not going to give up the faith.”
Speaking on behalf of a number of parishioners, Fellis said there was a lot of disappointment in the news.
“It took us by surprise,” she said. “We had heard the rumors for years, but it sounded ludicrous …. We’re trying to find out more information.”
She admitted the parish was small and had an older population, but contended that it was slowly growing back. She blames the closing of the parish school, which became Wings of Life and an unpopular former pastor for the dwindling population. Fellis said Farmer, who is the pastor now, is “wonderful.”
“We’re thankful we have him,” she said.
Fellis said some young families started attending and the church was very welcoming to them, but they soon left. Farmer said attracting and keeping families with children in a parish without a school is difficult. Fellis acknowledged that difficulty.
“We don’t have a school,” she said. “Are we going to be punished and torn apart because we don’t have a school?”
Fellis said the church still has the endowment, which could keep it from being financially strapped. She said the parish was told the money was partially being used to pay expenses, she added, “however, it’s not going to run out.”
Fellis said she’s working to get more information for the parishioners.
“I’m trying to call people and find out so we can at least get some answers before we’re torn apart,” she said. “The church is way too beautiful to disappear. It’s just too beautiful.”