In May 2004, Sean P. O'Malley, the Catholic archbishop of Boston, announced that 65 parishes out of 357 would close in a massive “reconfiguration” of the Boston Archdiocese. The closings had been half expected: In Boston, as in other big cities, urban parishes were seeing a fall in the number of parishioners. Fewer men were entering the priesthood, making parishes harder to manage. Pension commitments were underfunded (by a staggering $135 million, according to a 2006 report). And then the clergy sex abuse scandal emerged nationwide, especially acutely in Boston, where it has cost the archdiocese $150 million to settle with plaintiffs.

But the reality of the closings still struck the region's 2 million Catholics like a series of intensely local earthquakes. At St. James the Apostle, in suburban Arlington, Mass., James McGough, a barber now retired, resolved to accept his parish's closing with sadness, despite his long attachment to the place. He had served as elector at St. James for 14 years until 1985, when he became its lead cantor for the next nine. Funerals for both of his parents had been held there. The parish's closing disillusioned the congregation of 500—down from about 1,200 four decades ago—McGough recalled recently, sitting in a small art museum, not far from the church, where he is chairman emeritus. But “there were no sit-ins or protests,” he said, as there had been at numerous other parishes in the archdiocese. “The people here at St. James went along with it.”

For their acquiescence, the parishioners at St. James were not treated especially gently by the Boston Archdiocese. In October 2004, on the eve of a final celebratory Mass for the church, which was established in 1914, McGough remembers that St. James' pastor, the Rev. Francis E. Daley, had to go to the archdiocesan headquarters to retrieve a key. The previous day, officials with the archdiocese—taking no chances on protests—had come and changed the church's locks, “so that Father Daley couldn't even get in to celebrate Mass,” McGough says. “That hurt worse than anything,” he says, because “they didn't trust us.”

Blessed Sacrament Church, Jamaica Plain
Camilo José Vergara Blessed Sacrament Church, Jamaica Plain

A year later, St. James became a new church. A Greek Orthodox congregation in Arlington, St. Athanasius the Great, bought the three-acre St. James complex for $6 million. St. Athanasius is bursting with members—at last count, about 900 families. That Nov. 27, the Rev. Fr. Nicholas M. Kastanas of St. Athanasius held the final Divine Liturgy in its longtime church, an 1841 whiteboard Greek Revival building on Massachusetts Avenue. Afterward, the congregation made a procession up the avenue to their new church on Appleton Street.

“A group of us from St. James met them at the front door and wished them the best,” McGough recalls. “There were about 60 of us. They were flabbergasted.”

After Decades of Change, Contraction When a church closes, passions turn inside out. The rituals and routines that serve as spiritual mileposts to a people go unrequited. The container of countless shared and private memories surrounding births, marriages, and deaths has been sealed shut, and its comforts can no longer be reached. The generosities of a church—for a solitary prayer, safe haven after school, a free hot dinner, or a holiday play—cease to flow. All that animates the gloriously dressed shell left behind are questions of a rank material order: What can be done with this building?

A year after the Boston parish closings were announced, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named all of the historic Catholic churches of greater Boston to its annual list of the 11 most endangered places in the United States. Citing the “spiritual and artistic achievements of generations” embodied in the churches, the trust was trying to keep the buildings from being greatly altered or torn down as the archdiocese put them on the market to help pay off a $46 million deficit.

Boston's Archdiocese is scarcely alone in its dilemma to keep or close sacred properties. Many U.S. dioceses have been contracting for years, particularly in the Rust Belt and the plains. A 2004 study by USA Today found that between 1990 and 2003, all five of Indiana's dioceses shrank by number of parishes, and all but one of six in Ohio and seven of eight in Pennsylvania did so, as did West Virginia's only diocese, by 11 percent. In Wichita, Kan., the diocese scaled back by 19 percent, to 91 parishes.

The number of Catholic parishes nationwide peaked in 1995 at 19,331 and had fallen to 18,634 as of this year, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. About 3,200 of those parishes had no priest as a resident pastor (there were 549 such vacancies in 1965). Congregations have moved with the rest of the population from city to suburb in the Northeast and Midwest, and away from those regions entirely toward the burgeoning South and the West, where the church's growth in recent decades has been strongest. For the Catholic Church, the paradox has been a growing population nationwide but falling Mass attendance. About 33 percent of American Catholics say they go to church on Sundays, down from about 74 percent in the late 1950s.

Money donations have slowed accordingly and dropped off further in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, which began in 2002 and have cost the church nationally more than $2 billion so far.

In settling these cases, real estate has been the asset of first resort for most dioceses. As a symbolic impoverishment, some dioceses are selling their headquarters. The Boston Archdiocese sold its chancery and 67 gorgeously landscaped acres to Boston College for $172 million and is moving to offices in Braintree. (Church leaders are adamant that proceeds from this sale only—and not from the closed parishes—will finance the abuse settlements.) The Milwaukee Archdiocese is selling its headquarters on a 44-acre campus. In Chicago, the archdiocese is selling the seven-story Pastoral Center, its Gold Coast headquarters. The Diocese of Providence, R.I., sold its bishop's summer home in 2003 for about $7 million toward paying off $14 million in sex abuse claims.