The Martha's Vineyard Catholic church is at risk for having no permanent priest, possibly needing to consolidate three church buildings into one and cutting Masses to three a month, according to a long-term planning document prepared for the parish.
But the Rev. Michael R. Nagle, the priest for the Good Shepherd Parish - which covers three Catholic churches in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown - denies claims now circulating among parishioners that plans are afoot to sell off the churches to fund a single, $12 million new central facility.
The planning document, prepared by a facilitator employed by the church to guide parish planning meetings, canvases the prospect of a single church building, and the church has prepared an estimate of the market value of current property, assessing it at around $10 million.
The picture painted by the discussion document is grim. Apart from a summary of the broader challenges to Catholicism, it lays out a long list of difficulties within the Island community, including a graying population, smaller parish community, religious apathy, and what it terms the "parasitic mode of many Catholics."
Under the heading Risks and Possibilities the planning paper outlines the possibility of becoming a mission church with no priest in residence or having to share a priest with Nantucket, the prospect of having only a deacon as resident clergy, reducing masses to three a month, resorting to eucharistic services instead of masses, and even "no music (voices gone)."
And despite Father Nagle's denials of an imminent sell-off of church property, the document speaks openly about saving one church building as a chapel, citing the risk that there could be no new church and warning: "The longer we wait, the more expensive the land."
Father Nagle said this week that the engagement of facilitator Bernard F. Swain and the series of meetings over recent months is simply a long-range planning effort aimed at 10 or 15 years down the road, but one parishioner, Meg Mercier, who was present when the document was passed out on Jan. 10, has another view.
"Everything leans toward selling the churches. They've had the property valued at about $10 million. And they've had an estimate for building a new facility of about $12 million," she said.
Ms. Mercier said the facilitator asked those present at the meeting if they were happy to go forward with the one-church plan.
"Then they went around the meeting, asking people's views. I was one of only two who didn't want it. That's when I decided I had to let people know," she said.
Ms. Mercier has written a letter to the editor which appears in today's edition, and has also sent a letter to other parishioners.
Her particular concern is St. Elizabeth's church in Edgartown.
"There were probably 30 people at the meeting and only three from Edgartown," she said. "They admitted that 50 per cent of the income was from summer people. But they haven't been consulted.
"I feel it would be a real loss for the Island. Losing a church is like losing your soul. It's a beautiful place." She continued:
"The facilitator dismissed my concerns [as being] about bricks and mortar. But it's not that. People have had their baptisms and confessions and taken their marriage vows for generations.
"It's there for the honor and glory of God, a place where people can worship, and I don't think the fact that it's become valuable should allow them to take it from the town so easily."
Father Nagle said he, too, does not want to see any churches sold and he said none are about to be sold.
"No decision's been made. We're not even close to making a decision. Anyway, it's not my place; it's for the Bishop to decide," he said, adding:
"We did an evaluation of what we have, so we know what the property's worth, but we're not looking at selling anything off. It's not in the cards. She [Ms. Mercier] is putting the cart before the horse.
"The whole point of the planning meeting was so this sort of alarmist stuff wouldn't take place. Obviously that's failed."
Father Nagle said the plan all along has been to gather information, develop a picture of the long-term prospects and then present everything to parishioners - including seasonal members - come summer.
"We're trying to do it in the most open, forthright, honest, inclusive way we can," he said.
He suggested that Ms. Mercier may have distorted the facts about the meeting, but he also said the realities of the church's future must be faced.
"The problem is in 10 or 15 years you have a tremendous clergy shortage. Right now we have about 120 priests in the diocese. In 15 years we'll be lucky to have 50. You cannot expect to have more than one priest available to serve the Island on a year-round basis," he said.
Already, due to costs and the fact there is only one priest on the Island year-round, services are held only at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs during the off season. "We want to make sure we have a parish setup that would fit the requirements to have a resident priest," Father Nagle said.
"If we wait 10 years, it's all over. That's why we started now the process to create an atmosphere where we have a vibrant parish community that one priest is capable of taking care of."
He also said: "What do you do when you have three churches, and at the high point of the season have 2,500 to 3,000 people coming? You can't do it. You can't stuff 10 pounds of flour into a five-pound bag."
And the 10-pound bag option, as outlined in the parish meeting document is a single church building set in a parish campus with multiple uses.
As for St. Elizabeth's in Edgartown, Father Nagle said parishioners are not supporting it financially.
"The numbers from last year show four masses a weekend took in $69,000 during the summer season," he said, adding:
"Vineyard Haven [St. Augustine's] had two masses and took in $61,000 and Oak Bluffs [Our Lady Star of the Sea] had two masses and took in $65,000. Just this year, I spent over $100,000 fixing [St. Elizabeth's] up. You can't close your eyes to that. They say they're committed, but they're not putting their money where their mouth is. And they're not putting their time and energy where their mouth is."
He concluded: "This is only going to stay open with resources."