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Another church closes: How Ohio is losing faith in Christianity

The pews inside of a Catholic church are full of people. The building has high wooden arches and tall stained glass windows.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
St. Mary Church in Conneaut hosted its final service on Sunday. It is the ninth Catholic church in the Youngstown Diocese to close in two years.

Ten minutes before St. Mary Church’s very last mass begins, the pews are already full, lined with people who spent a lifetime building memories between the stained-glass windows.

“I sang in the choir for 18 years,” said 94-year-old Janis Robison, who has attended mass at the northeast Ohio church, just two miles from the shore of Lake Erie, for her entire life. “I always lived within walking distance of the early morning mass.”

She’s celebrated many beginnings at the church — baptisms, confirmations, weddings, more baptisms.

But today, she’s here for an ending.

After 136 years, St. Mary Church is holding its final mass.

The decision to close a church

St. Mary’s is the ninth church in the Youngstown Diocese to shutter in the past two years.

The region, in the heart of the rust belt, has a steadily shrinking population. As years go by, fewer and fewer people populate the pews.

When COVID hit Conneaut, the parish made a change.

St. Mary Church, a Catholic church, in Conneaut is more than 100 years old. It's white with stained glass windows against a bright blue sky.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
St. Mary Church is one of two Catholic churches in Conneaut. It has hosted mass for more than 100 years.

It stopped offering mass at St. Mary’s altogether, consolidating services with another church nearby. It was easier to sanitize just one building, said Nicholas Perkoski, the parish’s diocesan pastoral associate.

The move was so successful, they decided to make the consolidation permanent, after holding one last service at St. Mary’s.

“We were looking ahead at our finances of the parish,” he said. “We’re doing okay financially, but eventually, we would not be able to maintain two church buildings.”

He hopes the church’s closure will free up money for other ministries – the parish operates a soup kitchen, for example, and wants to sponsor a Ukrainian family.

“You know, these things take personnel,” Perkoski said. “It does take money.”

Closing the church was a difficult decision, but it’s one more and more Christian congregations across Ohio are having to make.

Churches closing across Ohio

Starting this summer, the Diocese of Columbus plans to close 19 churches.

The Cincinnati Archdiocese also recently began the process of consolidating. In 2021, it announced nearly three quarters of its parishes would close by 2027. That announcement came after weekly church attendance dropped by 20 percent over a decade.

And it’s not just a Catholic phenomenon.

“Baptists are down, Methodists are down, Lutherans are down, Episcopalians are down,” said Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor.

In 1991, just 7 percent of American adults identified as non-religious. Today, that number is 30 percent.

Church attendance reflects that.

“You're talking tens of millions of people who were in the pews 15 years ago who are not in the pews today,” Burge said.

He attributes the loss partly to politics.

St. Mary Church, a Catholic church, in Conneaut is more than 100 years old. It's white with stained glass windows against a bright blue sky.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
St. Mary Church is one of two Catholic churches in Conneaut. It has hosted mass for more than 100 years.

“We call it the God gap,” he said. “It's increasingly seen, especially in the white community, that to be religious is to be Republican and to be secular is to be a Democrat. And so a lot of liberal Christians are not Christians anymore because they don't have a space to be a liberal Christian.”

He said both Protestants and Catholics have recently shifted farther to the political right, a move that has left many feeling isolated, especially on social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

“But I also think, we just don't join stuff anymore,” Burge said. “Younger people especially. We just did not grow up in a culture where you had the Elks and the Moose and the American Legion and bowling leagues.”

The rise of social media has amplified that trend, Burge said, leaving people more isolated than ever, with fewer social groups to turn to.

“I call it the third space problem,” he said. “First space is home. Second space is work. We used to have lots of third spaces in America, places where we just go and be social with people. Religion was part of that. It was actually one of the core pieces of third space.”

But increasingly, it’s disappearing.

“We're going to see a massive change in American religion in the next 20 years,” Burge said. “We're going to see whole denominations closed, just shut down and stop operating in any meaningful way. We're going to see thousands of church buildings empty across America.”

The end of an era

As the service at St. Mary’s winds to an end, parishioners take turns bowing at the altar in front of the church, before turning and slowly processing outside.

Janis Robison has tears in her eyes.

“I’m third generation,” she says. “My grandma and grandpa, my mom and dad, it’s all in there. It’s hard.”

She stands with her daughter and granddaughter, and they watch as the final few people exit the church.

The bishop is last to leave. He turns and locks the door, bringing a century of St. Mary’s services to a final close.

Correction: A previous version of this article implied the Cincinnati Archdiocese has already eliminated 70 percent of its parishes. That is incorrect. Parishes in the diocese are still in the process of consolidating.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.