What’s going on with Port Richmond’s parishes? An interview with the Rev. James Olson

The Rev. James Olson, who will serve as pastor of all the parishes come July 1, reached out to the Star in an effort to provide further detail and clarity for Port Richmond church-goers about what changes they can expect to see as a result of the merger, if any.

Father James Olson, who will become the pastor of the merged parishes come July 1. | Photo submitted by James Olson.

Last month, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia revealed that four parishes located in the Port Richmond region – Saint Adalbert Parish, Saint George Parish, Mother of Divine Grace Parish and Nativity B.V.M. Parish – will merge together. The merger will take effect on July 1. To get a better idea of what exactly that means for parishioners, the Rev. James Olson, who will serve as pastor of all the parishes come July 1, reached out to the Star in an effort to provide further detail and clarity for Port Richmond church-goers about what changes they can expect to see as a result of the merger, if any.

Can you summarize a little bit the decision to merge the parishes and why it happened?

There’s a group in the diocese called the Archdiocese Strategic Planning Committee, and what they’re doing is across the diocese they’re looking at all of the parish groups, the parish clusters, and they’re looking at all the different parishes because there really are too many parishes across the diocese. There are statistics available comparing some other dioceses around the country in terms of the number of parishes and number of people [who are Catholic]. Going back to 2012 when Archbishop Chaput first got to the diocese, the diocese was in difficult financial shape at the time and one of the biggest drivers of that – at least initially – was that there were a whole bunch of parishes [for the amount of Catholics in Philadelphia]. About two-thirds of the parishes in the diocese were actually in debt. You look and you have to trim them down in different parts of the diocese. Here in Port Richmond, you have Mother of Divine Grace, Nativity, Lady Help of Christian, Saint Adalbert, Saint George and five churches all within five blocks of each other. I mean, it’s just too many parishes. And of the five churches, four of the five churches in Port Richmond were in debt. So you can see [how] they’re looking at [it] from a macro level.

[After the interview, Olson got back to the Star with the following statistics: In 2000, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia served 1.4 million Catholics in 286 parishes, which is one parish for every 4,895 people. For comparison, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles served 4 million Catholics in 287 parishes in the same year. That’s about one parish for every 13,987 people. Fast forward to the year 2017, and Philadelphia now has 217 parishes serving 1.1 million Catholics, which is about 5,069 people per parish. The Los Angeles numbers haven’t significantly changed. The 2000 numbers are according to the Official Catholic Directory of that year. The 2017 numbers are from the respective cities’ archdiocese websites.]

How much does money have to do with it? If there’s fewer people – because, like you said, Mass is declining – doesn’t that mean there’s less money flowing in? Is that a reason for all of this?

When it comes to the finances, there are people who are like, it’s only about money. Well, it is and it isn’t. I mean, our reason for being a church and our reason for being a parish isn’t to make money – that’s for sure. In fact, we’re in debt. But at the same time, we still have to pay the bills. We have to keep the lights on, we have to keep the heat on, and we have to pay salaries. So money is an important consideration when it comes to that. So I don’t know. I guess you could probably go back to the ‘40s and ‘50s and you be able to say, ‘oh, you know, they were making you know, $3,000 or $4,000 in a weekend then and they’re still making $3,000 or $4,000. But obviously, expenses are quite different, so having parishes in debt is a big driver. Having not so many priests to cover all the parishes is a big driver. And it’d be great to say – even if in theory – if every parish was, financially flush to say, ‘Oh, good, we’ll have Mass every hour on the hour at every parish.’ Well, there aren’t priests to cover that anymore. So that’s another factor, too, but far and away the biggest driver is how many people are coming to church.

But those things are correlated, right?

There is a correlation, but not necessarily. If there were 500 people at Mass, but for whatever reason they couldn’t put money in the basket, I would still have that Mass. But it is true when you only have 100 people at Mass and also they’re not putting money into the basket, and the expenses are mounting, then you know decisions have to be made.

In your email, you said that everything is staying open. So how is it cutting costs?

Well, it’s cutting costs a little bit at least initially by working under the hood a little bit. What we’re doing is we’re streamlining operations so we’re not duplicating operations in each parish. [For instance,] you’re not paying a person in each parish to [make] a parish bulletin. It’ll be one person doing one bulletin and then that person in one parish or another who was doing the bulletin is able to do something else that was not getting done at all. Same thing with contracts. With bulk [pricing], you can negotiate, say, the trash removal contract because now they only have four places all in one. Also besides that, we’re sharing priest resources. So rather than having people in each place, all the guys – there’s only three of us – we’re all working in each of the places, and in working together we’re able to provide more coverage than if each guy was on his own. Mostly, it’s just in the streamlining.

What’s the leadership structure like now?

I’m the pastor, so I’m kind of the boss. I’ll be working out of all of the churches, but the main location will be Saint Adalbert’s. That’ll be the main one, and Father Jan [Palkowsi], who was the pastor – and still is until July 1st of Saint Adalbert’s – he’s going to become what they call a senior priest. Father Jan will no longer be the pastor so he won’t be worried about whether the roof leaks or not. He’ll be a senior priest and he’ll be in charge – because he speaks Polish – of working with people who speak Polish primarily, and that’s called the Polish Apostolate and he’ll be doing that. Father [James] Gorman, who is older, will be working as an assistant, but he’ll be mostly assisting me in other things among all the parishes. Then, each parish has had, up until now, two different groups. There’s one group of the parish called the Pastoral Council. And that’s the people from each parish and they assist the priests and they do a lot of work making sure all of the things the church should be doing [like] Mass and liturgies and prayer and service outreach and care for the poor and everything that a church should be, they work on making sure that those things happen. Then there’s another group called Finance Council and they make sure that we can pay for it all, and they also oversee the bills and expenses and try to keep us as much as possible sovereign.

I work with both of those groups. What we did in Port Richmond already is all of the Pastoral Councils were combined into one because even before this, the parishes were partnered. I was at Nativity, MDG and Saint George for the last few years bouncing around like a ping-pong ball trying to take care of all of the parishes. We combined all of that already – the Pastoral Council. The Finance Council stayed separate up until now because each parish was running parallel to the other ones. But now what we’re going to do – not right away, obviously, I can’t do it like July 2nd, but eventually we’re going to be doing is we’re going to put all of those together as well so that we can streamline into the operation of the parish.

From the parishioners’ perspective, will they notice changes?

Probably not much. Most people don’t take change really well and sometimes even just the announcement of change is upsetting. But the reality is if they show up at the 11:30 Mass at MDG, it’ll be in the same place, they’ll sit in the same pews, the same priest will be in the front, the music will be the same. They probably won’t notice much of a difference. They show up at the 7:30 Polish Mass at Saint Adalbert’s. It’ll be right there at 7:30, it will be in Polish. They won’t notice the difference, really. Probably the people who will notice the difference would be the ones who are most active. So for instance, people who might come up during the week and help out at the rectory or things like that [since] ultimately we’re going to coordinate our rectory office hours. So again, when we talk about streamlining, right now every church has the same hours, so they’re open at the same time and they’re all closed at the same time and the times that they’re open and closed is usually not the times that are most convenient for people, especially if they’re working. There rectories might be open from 8 to 3 or 9 to 4 during the week, but then they’re not open on Saturday or Sunday and they’re not open in the evening. One thing we would like to do is say, well, why don’t we switch that around a little bit, If you’re free during the day, you need to get something from the rectory then you’ll go [to one church], but in the evening if you’re working all day, but you still need to sign up for a baptism or something like that, [you’ll sign up at another church]. Then you can go to one of these other ones and different times they’ll be open. It would be more convenient for people. They may notice those changes, but by and large they won’t notice much at all, I don’t think.