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Chicago Catholic parishes facing steep hardships during pandemic, but leaders remain hopeful

Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

CHICAGO — When parishioners gathered for Christmas Eve Mass at St. Clement Catholic Church last month, the Rev. Peter Wojcik was elated that for the first time since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pews at the majestic Lincoln Park church were once again filled with families.

But the robust attendance at St. Clement was fleeting, Wojcik said, and on Christmas Day and the Sunday after, the parish priest was disheartened to see the century-old, Byzantine-style church was once again echoing with half-empty pews.

“The new variant hit us like everyone else, which is absolutely heartbreaking, because all of us were hoping at this time, we’d be in a better place, and a safer place, but this pandemic just seems to keep going,” Wojcik said.

Nearly two years after the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 247 parishes in Cook and Lake counties were shuttered in the wake of the pandemic, the now fully reopened churches are struggling with steep declines in Mass attendance, which officials say has plummeted 40% during the pandemic.

While many Catholics are still providing financial support to their parishes, officials are reporting weekly collections, which are needed to pay for everything from employee salaries to keeping the lights on, are down 15% on average, said Betsy Bohlen, chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“There are significant challenges we’ve faced, and continue to face during the pandemic, but we’re also finding some silver linings,” Bohlen said.

 

Despite the dramatic decline in attendance at Mass accompanied by a decrease in weekly collections, Bohlen said student enrollment at the archdiocese’s 157 elementary and secondary schools “is up for the first time in 40 years.”

The church has also raised $12 million for Catholic Charities during the pandemic, Bohlen said, and “has made a concerted effort” to keep their parish workers employed.

“The church has endured hard times across the centuries, and in hard times, we’re particularly devoted to serving others, and we will continue to do so,” Bohlen said.

‘There’s no perfect way of doing this, but as a pastor, my main concern is keeping our people safe’

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