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Number of Catholics in R.I. drops

* The new Diocese of Providence figures show that the number of Catholics in the state has declined by 91,000 in the past year.

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The nation's most heavily Catholic state might not be as Catholic as it used to be, according to a new study of church membership in the United States.

Compiled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, it shows that while 63 percent of Rhode Islanders were affiliated with with Catholic parishes in 1990, the percentage was down to 52 percent in 2000.

What is particularly startling about the new figure - 542,244 is that it comes from data supplied by the Diocese of Providence, based on reports from local parishes. Only a year ago, the diocese reported to the Official Catholic Directory that Rhode Island had a Catholic population of 639,962.

Diocesan officials say that the higher number might more accurately reflect the impact of a mushrooming Hispanic community that is sometimes difficult to count.

"Admittedly, there is some guesswork involved," said Monsignor Paul D. Theroux, a deanery vicar and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Providence who is also in charge of priest personnel.

"But looking at our own internal figures, I don't think we can say there has been an appreciable decline in the number of Catholics in Rhode Island."

The loss of 91,183 Catholics between 1990 and 2000, as reflected in reports from local church pastors, stands in contrast to the gains reported by parishes in nearby Bristol County, Mass., where Catholic Church membership increased 9.5 percent, to 268,434, outpacing a 5.6-percent increase in population.

It also runs counter to what the study's researchers have found nationally. Their report, "Religious Congregations & Membership 2000," released 10 days ago by the Glenmary Research Center, shows that while growth has been stagnant in the Northeast, Catholic churches nationwide grew 16 percent, picking up 8 million of the 11 million new members claimed by all the faiths combined.

But a decline in the number of Catholics in Rhode Island would not be so far different from that in some other denominations: the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, the state's next largest religious body, which dropped 16 percent, a 5,109-member loss.

Also losing members were the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Unitarian-Universalist churches, which was down 21.8 percent.

However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, had the biggest membership gain in Rhode Island, gaining 857 members during the decade. The Salvation Army more than tripled its size. And the International Foursquare Gospel Churches saw their Rhode Island numbers rise more than five-fold.

One group included for the first time were Muslims, whose number in Rhode Island was pegged at 1,827.

At a news conference in Nashville timed to coincide with the release of the study, Kenneth M. Sanchagrin of the Glenmary Research Center emphasized that the study differs from most in that it tries to measure actual participation in congregations, rather than responses to a survey or poll.

(The exception is the estimate on numbers of Jews, which includes secular as well as religious Jews.)

The Rev. Richard H. Taylor, pastor of Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence and a past president of the statisticians' association, says researchers went out of their way this time to check for accuracy, knowing that some denominations had a history of exaggerating numbers.

Because some of the Orthodox churches tended to include anyone in their ethnic group as being a member of their church, the researchers hired Alexei Krindatch, an expert who has done similar studies in Russia, to determine how many people really belong to the Orthodox Church in America. The result: this year's report shows the church has 77,000 members in 370 houses of worship, not the 1.5 million reported previously.

And knowing that many of the black denominations have publicly consistently claimed the same number year after year, the researchers provided them with $30,000 in software to help them get more accurate figures. However, most of the black denominations opted out.

Mr. Taylor says that the failure of many of those denominations to participate, while disappointing, does not necessarily skew the results in Rhode Island, because many of the black Baptist churches have dual membership in the American Baptists, whose numbers are counted.

On the matter of counting Catholics, local clergy appeared last week to be of two minds. The Rev. Aflred P. Almonte, pastor of St. Bartholomew in Providence's Silver Lake section, said his parish has 1,900 families on its rolls, down from 2,600 families 10 years ago.

But he said he suspects the actual number of Catholics might be as high as it was 10 years ago, something he believes would be proved by going into neighborhoods to talk to the many immigrants who have moved in.

"I suspect that if we did a parish census, we would find we have as many Catholics as before," the priest said.

The Rev. Raymond B. Malm, of St. Michael parish in South Providence, says he finds it difficult to believe the Glenmary finding that Providence County, stretching from Providence north to the Massachusetts line, has 99,000 fewer Catholics than 10 years ago.

"Our parish is growing, and I would imagine that most of the parishes that have immigrants are growing at least as much as we are," the priest said. "Thirteen years ago, we had a Spanish Mass downstairs. But it got so full that we've had to move upstairs. We have a big church, and we are almost full every Sunday."

So who are the missing Catholics? Father Malm thinks they include Hispanics, some in his own parish, who come to church every week but have never registered as a member of a parish.

Veronica Cordorreal, 48, could be one of them. An active churchgoer who frequently goes to prayer group meetings at St. Michael Church, said she never signed up as a parish member because it was "not the custom" in the Dominican Republic, where she lived before moving to Rhode Island.

It was to account for such people as Cordorreal and others in her family that Monsignor Jacque Plante, the diocesan chancellor, decided several years ago that it would be reasonable to adjust the figure from parishes to take into account the Catholics who have not registered with parish before sending the report to the Official Catholic Directory.

Last year Monsignor Plante decided that adding 17 percent would be a reasonable adjustment.

Was it too high? Clifford Grammich, who handled the Catholic data collection for the study, says he has a formula for assessing the accuracy of diocesan figures: he compares the number of Catholic baptisms and funerals to the numbers of births and deaths recorded by the state, and arrives at a likely estimate of the percentage of the Catholic population.

The formula, he said, suggests that Rhode Island has 571,000 Catholics a figure in between the raw data that was sent to him by the diocese and the numbers in the 2001 Official Catholic Directory.

Because the diocese sent him the lower figure, and it was "close enough" to his own calculations, he went with the lower figure.

Whichever number is used, it shows significant movements within and outside the state.

"It's not so much that people have stopped going. It's the population that's shifted," says Monsignor Theroux. "Many older people have retired to Florida, where the Catholic population is exploding."

The migration of Catholics to the South and the West that is reflected in the nationwide numbers is mirrored by a similar migration in the state, away from the urban center: Catholic parishes in South County are awash in new members, up from 31,941 in 1990 to 58,668 in 2000.

The Rev. Steele Martin, an Episcopal priest who travels the Diocese of Rhode Island as a supply pastor, says his denomination is also encountering demographic shifts that are pushing numbers down.

In the Episcopal Church, however, it is the decline in the population that traces itself to England and that was found in mill towns of New England, the Rev. Martin believes. Many of their children, he says, go off to college in other states, and don't return.

"Another part of the story, I think, is we have a different generation of kids who don't get married soon," Rev. Martin said. "And when they do, they don't marry Episcopalians."

Perhaps one example of the churches that have been growing is the Rev. Elizabeth Janiak's Living Waters Four Square Gospel Church in Smithfield. Ten years ago her charismatic Pentecostal congregation had 41 members. Now it has more than 150, including almost a third who are African-American, Nigerian, Haitian, Liberian and Brazilian.

Mrs. Janiak says her denomination has three churches in Rhode Island and plans to soon open two more.

"We would never be considered open or dull," she says, seeking to explain why more are coming to her church. She says she often conducts member surveys to find out what issues and needs people want to see addressed. Right now, for example, the church is sponsoring a series of programs for college-age people on dealing with stress.

"People think a church is where you sit and someone preaches at you,' said Mrs. Janiak, whose congregation is made up almost entirely of former Catholics. "It should be a place where you learn how to deal with problems. Church isn't what it used to be."

Mr. Taylor, who helped collect the data for the non-Christian religions in the study, says liberal mainline Protestant churches have experienced declines, but he believes there might be a silver lining.

"I find that many of these churches, although smaller, are more devout and more strongly committed."

And the minister takes heart in what he sees as one surprising statistic: his own denomination, the predominantly liberal United Church of Christ, had a higher rate of church attendance than the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention: 33 percent versus 28 percent.

As for churches' chances of regaining some of the lost membership, Mr. Taylor believes they will.

"A lot of what we're seeing comes from people marrying across faith lines. When they do, couples tend to distance themselves from their respective religions. Then after a time, they return."

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1990 2000 CHANGE

Congre- Congre- Congre- gations Adherents gations Adherents gations Adherents %chg

American Baptist Churches USA 77 21,703 73 20,997 -4 -706 -3.3%

American Baptist Assn. 1 25

Armenian Apostolic (Cilicia) 1 9,000 1 1,400 0 -7,600 -84.4%

Armenian Apostolic (Etchmiadzin) 1 2,400

Assembly of God 18 3,203 23 3,564 5 361 11.3%

Baha'i 3 261

Baptist General Convention 2 114 2 190 0 76 66.7%

Buddhism 5

Calvary Chapel 1

Catholic 165 633,427 165 542,244 0 -91,183 -14.4%

Christian and Missionary All. 4 802 3 780 -1 -22 -2.7%

Church of God (Anderson) 2 240 3 332 1 92 38.3%

Church of God (Cleveland) 8 723 22 1,314 14 591 81.7%

Church of God of Prophecy 3 102 4 328 1 226 221.6%

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 5 1,438 7 2,295 2 857 59.6%

Church of the Nazarene 4 434 6 660 2 226 52.1%

Churches of Christ 6 605 6 382 0 -223 -36.9%

Community of Christ 2 126

Congregational Churches (other) 2 721 2 981 0 260 36.1%

Conservative Baptist Assn. 6 8 1,350 2

Conservative Cong. Christian Conference 2 211 1 193 -1 -18 -8.5%

Episcopal Church 66 31,865 64 26,756 -2 -5,109 -16.0%

Evangelical Covenant Church 4 770

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America 12 5,500 12 5,914 0 414 7.5%

Free Methodist Church 1 40 1 35 0 -5 -12.5%

Friends (Quakers) 9 617 9 599 0 -18 -2.9%

General Six Principle Baptists 1 147

Greek Orthodox (America) 3 3 3,438

Greek Orthodox (Vasiloupulis) 1 675

Hindu 1

Independent Charismatic 1 600 2 925 1 325 54.2

Independent, non-charismatic 6 2,850 1 300 -5 -2,550 -89.5%

International Church of the Foursquare Gospel 3 58 3 336 0 278 479.3%

Jewish (estimated) 24 16,101 19 16,100 -5 -1 0.0%

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod 4 1,415 3 1,017 -1 -398 -28.1%

Muslim (estimated) 3 1,827

National Assn. of Cong. Christian Churches 2 172 2 156 0 -16 -9.3%

National Assn. of Free Will Baptists 1 42

Orthodox Church in America (Romanian) 1 81

Orthodox Church in Amer. (territorial dioceses) 1 178

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 9 2,835 9 2,417 0 -418 -14.7%

Presbyterian Church in America 1 68 1 108 0 40 58.8%

Primitive Methodist 4 383 5 304 1 -79 -20.6%

Reformed Baptist Churches 1

Regular Baptist 1 70

Salvation Army 3 297 3 1,000 0 703 236.7%

Seventh-day Adventist 6 695 7 802 1 107 15.4%

Southern Baptist 5 1,641 8 1,903 3 262 16.0%

Syrian Orthodox Church 1 700 1 250 0 -450 -64.3%

Ukrainian Orthodox 1 474

Unitarian-Universalist 8 1,661 9 1,299 1 -362 -21.8%

United Church of Christ 30 9,482 28 8,862 -2 -620 -6.5%

United Methodist 26 9,425 26 8,592 0 -833 -8.8%

Vineyard USA 1 160

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod 1 139

THE POPULATION of Rhode Island was 1,003,464 in 1990; in 2000 it was 1,048,319. The total population changed 4.5%. The unclaimed population represents 36.5% of the total in 2000.

SOURCE: Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990 and Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000.


©Copyright 2002, Providence Journal

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