Catholics´ Quick Growth Strains Dallas Diocese

«It´s a Good Struggle to Have,» Bishop Says

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DALLAS, Texas, JAN. 25, 2001 (
Texas, once a bastion of Baptists, is becoming a cradle of Catholicism. Catholics outpace Baptists in growth and outnumber them in many parts of the state, the Dallas Morning News recently reported.

Parking is such a problem at some Dallas-area Catholic churches that Monsignor Kilian Broderick walked into Mass one Sunday and told some worshippers they might want to leave for a moment. «If you´re parked in the wrong spot, better move your car,» said the pastor of St. Ann Parish in Coppell. «Last night, police gave out 24 tickets.»

The 630,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas now make up more than a fifth of the area´s population. But the diocese isn´t keeping pace with demands for new churches and schools.

The struggles are multiple: land costs, a priest shortage and cultural challenges presented by a surging Hispanic population. «It´s a struggle, but a good struggle to have,» the newspaper quoted Bishop Charles Grahmann as saying.

The diocese has tripled in Catholics since its boundaries were formed in 1987. An influx of immigrants from Latin America and white-collar workers from the North is driving the growth.

The growth has set off a building boom unseen in the diocese since the 1950s, officials said. At least 18 parishes and schools are seeking funds for nearly $130 million in new projects.

One example is St. Ann´s Parish in Coppell. The church fills so quickly at St. Ann that people are directed to two overflow rooms to follow worship on big-screen televisions. «If you don´t get here 25-30 minutes early, you don´t get a seat in the church,» said Joan Harris, 39, of Flower Mound.

At St. Mark Parish in Plano, 10 Masses are held every weekend. At times, two Masses are going at once. «We have to have three of our liturgies in the cafeteria, which is not the best worship space,» said Monsignor Glenn (Duffy) Gardner, pastor of St. Mark. «But we don´t have a choice.»

At the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe downtown, where weekend Masses draw 10,000 Catholics, security guards are used to control crowds. Every pew is packed, and people crowd the aisles and spill into hallways. Not long after the 1:30 p.m. Sunday Mass begins, people line up for the 3 p.m. service. «Nobody gives a thought about missing the Cowboys,» said Juan Arriola, 49, a member for 23 years.

The growth corridors are in the northern suburbs of Frisco, Plano and Coppell, as well as at the downtown cathedral and south in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, the Morning News said. The growth is more of a struggle for the economically strapped Oak Cliff churches, which largely serve Hispanics, the fastest-growing population in the diocese.

Santa Clara of Assisi has swelled to 12,500 parishioners in the eight years since it was started. But most members´ incomes are limited, which restricts the ministries that the parish can provide, Father Colella said. «There are no doctors, no lawyers, no teachers, no corporate executives,» he said.

Southern states -­ especially Texas and Georgia -­ are among the fastest growing for the nation´s 62 million Catholics. But traditionally, the South hasn´t been a stronghold for Catholics, who make up the country´s largest denomination.

Early Catholic immigrants to the United States settled in the Upper Midwest and the Northeastern United States. «But as they´ve assimilated and gotten successful, they´ve moved South to the good jobs in the suburban areas,» said Mary Gautier, a researcher at Georgetown University.

A surge in immigrants from Latin America also is reshaping the Church. Hispanics now make up between 20% and 30% of the Catholic population nationally and two-thirds of the Catholics in the Dallas Diocese.

Many priests in the diocese are bilingual out of necessity, providing more than 45 Spanish Masses on weekends. Last year, two new parishes were formed to accommodate Hispanic growth: Blessed Juan Diego in northwest Dallas and Nuestra Señora Del Pilar in southwest Dallas.

The diocese´s largest parish, Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe, serves 50,000 Catholics — more than twice any other parish. Twenty percent of the largely Hispanic parish regularly attend services.

A few decades ago, many Catholic schools were on the verge of closing. Now the demand is so great that some schools are turning students away, diocesan officials said. That´s true across the country. In the last decade, 250 Catholic schools have opened ­- 37 in the past year.

«Climbing enrollment and longer waiting lists have fueled the school openings,» said Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Education Association in Washington, D.C. In the Dallas Diocese, five schools are expanding. But Bishop Grahmann said he wants every new parish to consider starting a school.

Most schools are long-term projects. The cost of land and the diocese´s need to build churches first means it may be years, even decades, before some school construction gets under way.

In October, Catholics starting a new parish in Plano asked for an estimate of just how long it would take to build an elementary school. «If you have a little Mortimer who´s 2 years old, he most likely will not taste and see the goodness of a school,» Father Henry Petter told them.

Could the diocese have been better prepared for the growth? Yes and no, said Monsignor Gardner, also the diocese´s vicar general. «A few years ago, all the growth was south in areas like Duncanville,» he said. «The diocese didn´t realize Plano would grow that quickly. Nor did anybody else in Dallas.»

The rapid growth in North Texas made Frisco, Allen and McKinney among the fasting-growing cities in the country. From 1990 to 1999, Frisco´s population grew from 6,517 to 32,101.

«Frisco used to be so dead that even the Dairy Queen closed,» said Monsignor Leon Duesman, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish. «Now we´re the epitome of Texas growth. We´ve got a big new mall. The population is booming. Even Starbucks is here.»

Catholic experts in church growth say members will tolerate the overcrowding and inconvenience as long as it´s a temporary condition. But attendance by Hispanics at Mass seems to be dropping.

A new study by the Barna Research Group said that the number of Hispanic adults who say they´ve attended a Catholic Church more frequently than any other church dropped 15% in the last decade, to 53%. «The real battleground in church growth is over Hispanics,» said Patricia Sullivan Vanni, director of the Catholic Leadership Network in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

At the logistical level, parishes estimate that they will need 20 to 30 acres for a church campus that includes a school. That´s different thinking from a few years ago.

When St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Plano was established in 1976, the parish acquired 6.5 acres. Now it doesn´t have room to build a school, though the parish plans to expand its church facilities.

A spinoff parish was started in December. Terry Wooliscroft, the parish´s business administrator, estimates that it will take $1.4 million just to pay for land for a church. «How quickly construction goes up depends on donors,» he said.

Bishop Grahmann said the biggest hindrance to starting new churches isn´t money; it´s a lack of priests. The diocese has one priest for every 3,580 Catholics, a ratio three times more severe than the national average.

The clergy shortage is so acute nationally that 13 of every 100 Catholic parishes are without a resident priest. Dallas doesn´t have any priestless parishes, but officials say that day may soon come. «It´s not a dire shortage,» Bishop Grahmann said. «But it is a shortage.»

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