Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds has announced a programme of church mergers and closures that will cut the number of parishes in his diocese almost by half.
The plans, revealed in a pastoral letter last week, follow two years of consultation and are an attempt to respond to shrinking congregations and a falling number of priests.
They will reduce the number of parishes in the diocese from 28 to 16 and leave eight churches vacant.
In his pastoral letter Bishop Roche said it was “never easy” to announce church closures.
He said: “I have much sympathy with those who have invested so much of their lives for their upkeep. Many of you will associate wonderful and profound things with these buildings.
“But the Church is not a building; it is you, the living stones who make the face of Christ visible in our society. So while I acknowledge, indeed share with you, some of the hurt and pain of closure, I also encourage you to have that pioneering and missionary spirit of our forebears.”
Bishop Roche said that two parishes, St Augustine and St Patrick, both near Leeds city centre, would be kept open thanks partly to Catholic immigrants. But he said they would be kept under review due to the “changing nature of the population”. A spokesman for the diocese said the congregations were swelled by Catholics from the West Indies, Nigeria, and the Philippines.
In his letter Bishop Roche admitted there had been opposition to some of the closures.
He said that St Brigid’s, Churwell, and Our Lady of the Nativity, Ardsley, would be closed despite the protests of parishioners who have “great bonds with what they presently know”.
“However, with the greatest respect, this is not realistically possible for one priest, nor is it possible to sustain all these properties in good repair for a long-term future.
“I realise how painful this news will be for some of you, but I urge you all to bring all your gifts and energies to work for the good of the new community and to collaborate together in building something new by consolidating these former communities into one,” the bishop said.
Bishop Roche said the first change to the diocese would be to reduce the number of deaneries from four to three, covering north Leeds, east Leeds, and south-west Leeds. Many of the churches no longer used by parishes will become chapels of ease, and one in the centre of Leeds, Holy Rosary, will house a community of nuns.
The parishes being merged are Our Lady of Lourdes, St Mary, the Holy Name, the Assumption, Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St Gregory, Corpus Christi, St Francis of Assisi, St Philip, St Joseph and St Wilfrid.
Bishop Roche said many people who had responded to the consultation had called for a greater collaboration between priests and the laity. “I wholeheartedly acknowledge this need,” he said, “and I ask those who will be charged as parish priests in these new deaneries to work with the episcopal vicar for evangelisation to meet these needs.”
The bishop also asked priests and parishioners to think about how best to pool their finances.
He said: “In last autumn’s DVD I invited you to reflect ‘on two issues that will need to be discussed further if changes are to be successful; namely, the timing of Sunday Masses and the pooling of financial resources’.
“The responses that I received indicate that in some areas consideration was given to the timings of Sunday Mass but I have received little to indicate that the pooling of financial resources figured in your deliberations!”
Last year Bishop Roche closed seven parishes in the Pontefract and Wakefield region of the diocese, causing furious protests.
Protesting parishioners from three of the churches marched on the Leeds diocesan headquarters to hand over a petition. In a separate protest, about 40 parishioners at St John the Evangelist chained themselves to church railings, lit candles and sung hymns.