For the past 50 years, the St. Louis King of France and St. Thomas More Catholic Church parishes have stood fewer than two miles apart. Catholics came and went to both — children decked in formal wear for first communions, adults beaming on their wedding days, mourners weeping during funerals.
But with dwindling attendance and struggling finances at St. Louis King of France, plus a priest shortage starting to be felt in Baton Rouge, the two parishes are about to grow much closer.
The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge has announced that one pastor will now serve both parishes, in another example of north Baton Rouge Catholic church shake-ups in the diocese. And while each church and its respective school is remaining open for now, a task force has recommended shuttering St. Louis King of France parish by July 2018 and having St. Thomas More absorb the faithful St. Louis attendees.
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Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench has yet to make the final decision on closing the church, but some of its parishioners say they are fully expecting it.
"It's heartbreaking because my belief in our Gospel and the way our God works is those who are most in need are the ones who are served," said Marie Sylvester, who volunteers as a greeter at St. Louis King of France and has been attending the church for more than 20 years. "And I feel like we have a great need in our parish, yet we're going to lose our church."
Combining the churches was one of the more unusual announcements to come out of Muench's annual notice of priest reassignments. Previously, the two church parishes had three priests, with one at St. Louis and two at St. Thomas More. Effective July 1, that will change.
The Rev. Michael Alello will remain the pastor at St. Louis King of France, but he will also take over as administrator of St. Thomas More Parish. And St. Thomas More will also receive the Rev. Patrick Broussard as parochial vicar, while the Rev. Thomas Duhé, the longtime St. Thomas More pastor, is retiring.
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Alello is out of the country and was unable to be interviewed for this story, and Duhé said he could not speak without permission from the diocese.
The shuffling of priests is also forcing Mass times to change. All daily Masses will be held at St. Thomas More, and St. Louis King of France will lose its 4:30 p.m. Saturday Masses.
That's the Mass that longtime parishioner Clyde Martin said his wife will miss the most. He said they are not happy about the collaboration between the churches, but they realize it's a practical decision that needed to be made. He's been attending Mass at St. Louis since 1968.
"What happened was the demographics of the neighborhood changed," said Martin, who sings in the church choir and is a member of the Knights of Columbus and usher society. "Most of the Catholics moved out of the neighborhood and a lot of the present ones who still attend there don't live in the boundaries of the parish. They drive back there because they like the church."
In response to The Advocate's questions about the plan, the diocese released a letter about the findings of the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Task Force. In the letter, the diocese acknowledges the transition will be difficult for many parishioners, but also says the new opportunity brings new hope.
It's not the only tough decision recently handed down from the diocese. They also officially closed St. Pius X in north Baton Rouge on May 31, incorporating the parish into St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Baker. The St. Pius X building will be used for the Hispanic Apostolate.
Gladden Norris, who has been attending St. Louis King of France since 1969, said he especially appreciates the diversity of St. Louis. Norris is a former grand knight of the Knights of Columbus affiliated with the St. Louis, and he said the Knights will also have to make a decision about their future. They could possibly become independent from a church parish.
"St. Louis King of France is, to me, unique in that it has accepted people from all walks of life," Norris said, reflecting on how some parishioners attend Mass in traditional African garb. "It's quite colorful, really."
And Sylvester said the financial diversity of the parish is also what helps to make it special.
"We've experienced the transition of priests through the years and we've managed to hold together, but this is like the final blow to our parish," she said. "It's just numbing to think that because we don't have the finances that other parishes do, we don't have the number of parishioners that other parishes do, and we don't have the number of priests, we have been chosen to shut down."
One bright side, Martin said, is that Alello is staying. Martin said the priest had St. Louis King of France on the rebound and his dynamic homilies have been bringing people to Mass.
At St. Thomas More, parishioners offered up a special petition during Mass on Tuesday for "comfort and understanding" as the two churches begin their collaboration. Betty Stevenson, who's been attending Mass at St. Thomas More since 1969, said she hopes the St. Louis parishioners will feel welcome.
But she's also worried about what will come next.
"I am concerned about the future — the lack of faith from young people," Stevenson said. "They don't profess their faith on a regular basis."
While parishioners at St. Louis King of France and St. Thomas More alike said they are praying about what comes next, Sylvester said the idea of losing the parish she loves has tested her faith. She said she hopes all the good done at St. Louis King of France, as recently as National Guard members using it as a staging area during the floods, will not be forgotten.
"So goes a beautiful parish," she added.