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Dwindling number of priests forces change at St. Rita

Dwindling number of priests forces change at St. Rita


CALEDONIA — A shortage of priests is forcing a group of Catholic clergymen to vacate their monastery at St. Rita Parish. This includes the church’s pastor, Father Rich O’Leary, who will be leaving his post at the church sometime in the next few months.

Membership in the Order of Augustine — a.k.a. Augustinians, the friars who serve St. Rita — has been dropping, which has forced its hand in moving away from St. Rita, 4339 Douglas Ave.

“I really have loved it here. The people are great. The parish is great. But since they can’t maintain a community (of Augustinians) here, I can’t stay here,” said O’Leary, a native New Yorker. “It shouldn’t change the parish … all the things the parish does will go on.”

When O’Leary joined St. Rita in July 2016, he said that there were 15 men living in the monastery. Four of them were friars, in addition to 11 novices — men who have already been admitted into the Augustinian order but are undertaking “a yearlong program of prayer, contemplation, and education” before their formal religious studies begin.

At the beginning of this year, there were two novices and three priests living there. Now they’re down to one novice, leaving four men in total, less than three years after there had been 15.

The Augustinian novitiate — where novices live and are trained — at St. Rita is the only active one in the country right now, O’Leary said. It will likely be moved to a new location closer to the East Coast after the one at St. Rita closes, but no location has been chosen.

In a letter to St. Rita Parish, Augustinian leaders wrote that “the number of candidates entering the novitiate has diminished significantly, and the prognosis for the next several years does not seem to be changing.”

Supply doesn’t meet demand

The total number of priests in the U.S. has fallen rapidly over the past four decades — from 59,192 in 1970 down to 37,192 in 2017, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The total number of American Catholics has continued to grow, from almost 48 million in 1970 to 68.5 million in 2017. But during that same timeframe the percentage of people actually going to Mass every week was halved.

There were only 571 parishes without a resident pastor in 1970, according to CARA. In 2017, that number had grown by seven times, to more than 3,500.

That’s not something O’Leary wants to see happen at St. Rita.

“It’s an issue for the church in America, and I think it’s an issue for everybody,” O’Leary said.

Pastors aren’t getting any younger, either. A CARA study found that the median age of American priests in 1970 was 45 years old. In 2012, the median age had grown to 59. Additionally, that same study found that more than 40 percent of U.S. priests in 2012 were over the age of 65, more than quadruple the rate four decades earlier.

“The numbers are definitely affecting us,” O’Leary said. “The numbers (of priests) who die don’t match up with the ones being ordained.”

O’Leary described the lives of the clergy are “countercultural,” and that can be a barrier, averting new men from undertaking religious vows.

“The way we live is not the way the wider culture thinks we should be living,” O’Leary said. “We are different.”

What’s next?

The Augustinians promised to cover the costs of their lease with St. Rita Parish, which expires in 2021.

The friars and novice living at St. Rita will move to another monastery, where they can take part in a fuller community.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee will have the job of finding a new pastor for St. Rita. A meeting between the archdiocese and parish leaders is expected to take place this week to discuss how best to serve the parish’s needs.

O’Leary says he doesn’t know when his last mass at St. Rita will be, but said a replacement may not be appointed until July.


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