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Father Shaun Haggerty speaks during mass at St. George's Catholic Church in Hartford on Sunday. The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls plans to change how it serves some rural congregations, as populations continue shifting from rural areas to urban centers.

Sioux Falls Diocese might merge rural parishes

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SIOUX FALLS (AP) — The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls plans to change how it serves some rural congregations, as populations continue shifting from rural areas to urban centers.

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The shifting demographics coupled with a high rate of retiring priests and the loss of several religious orders led Bishop Paul Swain to announce in a monthly newsletter that changes are coming to the diocese structure, the Argus Leader newspaper reported (http://argusne.ws/1bRqaOc ).

The diocese governs all of the Catholic parishes in South Dakota east of the Missouri River. No churches are expected to be closed, but some parishes probably will be merged and others likely will stay open but lose regular services.

"It's not an easy thing," diocese spokesman Jerry Klein said.

No changes will happen until next summer, he said.

The diocese has been planning for changes since 2009. All parishes developed an advisory plan for what to do if their populations became too small or if there were too few priests or ministers to serve them. Few of those plans were carried out, however.

"As the bishop said in his column, he didn't want to implement anything until it was absolutely necessary," Klein said.

The northeastern corner of the diocese probably will be affected soonest. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic religious order that has provided religious services in and around Sisseton for more than 80 years, has decided to leave the area next year. That means the Diocese of Sioux Falls will need to shift resources to serve Catholics in that area.

The declining number of priests in the diocese is another concern. Many priests, such as the Rev. Bob Krantz of the Saint Ann parish in Humboldt, are responsible for multiple parishes. He performed three services in two parishes Sunday, in Humboldt and Montrose.

"There are priests that try to take care of four churches," Krantz said. "There aren't as many priests. Part of it, too, is demographics. There aren't as many people in rural areas."

Many churches have seen declines in the number of members and services provided. A few churches last year performed no baptisms at all, meaning there were few if any new members. Other churches in larger communities such as Aberdeen and Sioux Falls saw increases in new members. In 2010, 20 of the 155 parishes in the diocese had more than 50 percent of households, baptisms and first communions.

"Just the demographics a certainly a big factor," Klein said. "I think the reality is no matter where you are, change happens."

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