Why are more Catholic Churches closing their doors?

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WINOOSKI, Vt. (WCAX) Three Catholic churches in Vermont are set to close within the next week-- the latest sign of the times for Vermont's largest church community. Our Ike Bendavid takes a look at what's behind the closures and what's next.

I'm told it's several things. Weekly Mass attendance and access to other churches in the area make it easier to consolidate, but the main reason is not enough priests to lead the parishes in the state.

After near 90 years, St. Stephen's Church in Winooski will ring the bells one last time this weekend.

"It will be missed for those of us who have loved it," said Peggy Lesage of Winooski.

Lesage has been going to this church for 33 years.

"Just about helping out with everything because I have been there so long," she said.

She will be one of more than 100 people who will be looking for a new church as St. Stephen's will host its last mass on Sunday.

"I was not surprised," Lesage said. "We have been challenged with a lack of priests in the diocese for a long time."

And that's the main reason for this church to close. The current priest, Father Steve Hornat, is moving south and there is no one to replace him.

"It's a difficult challenge. It's the culture that we live in, priesthood is not an appealing ministry for young people these days," Hornat said.

The number of churchgoers has also been falling for years, driven by aging demographics, a decline in religious interest among younger people and priest sex abuse scandals that have driven away some parishioners.

According to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, there were 142,000 Catholics in Vermont in 1990. In 2019, there were 112,000 statewide.

In 1990, there were 2,097 baptisms. In 2019, there were only 384.

Also in 1990, there were 1,290 Catholic funerals. Last year, there were 1,127.

"The congregations are getting smaller, so it makes a lot of sense for a small city like Winooski that has two Catholic churches to bring them together," Hornat said.

Winooski is not alone. On July 1, North American Martyrs Catholic Church in Marshfield and St. Edward Catholic Church in Williamstown will close. That will make 20 church closings in Vermont since 1990. Closures in small towns force parishioners to drive to neighboring towns for church services.

Lesage has more options with 12 churches within 5 miles of St. Stephen's that she can attend.

"I might become one of the church hoppers trying to find a place to call home again," she said.

Lesage also told me that it's tough to close down during the pandemic. They can't have a proper goodbye for the priest or the church.

Vermont has an older population and it seems like we have a lot of older priests. According to the diocese, as of 2019, there were 50 priests statewide in Vermont. Only eight of them were under 34. And 19 of them were over 60, which points to some retirements soon.