When the Right Rev. Thomas Andrew Becker became the first bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington on March 3, 1868, the prospects for successful stewardship were far from encouraging. His territory counted only eight priests, a relatively small number of Catholics, and 15 church buildings mired in debt and decay. Wilmington—the cathedral city—counted only 3,000 Catholics among its 50,000 residents.
Catholicism had never been strong on the Delmarva Peninsula. The earliest settlers were English and Irish Protestants in the Maryland and Virginia portions and the Dutch and Swedes in Delaware.
But Becker, a convert to Catholicism, was a man of vision and determination—so much so that when he left 18 years later, the young parish had nearly triple the number of priests and nearly double the number of churches. He also established an orphanage and academy for boys, an academy for girls and two additional parochial schools.
Becker’s accomplishments laid the foundation for the diocese to grow into what it has become: a vital and spiritually rich community of 56 parishes, 18 missions, 30 schools and nearly a quarter of a million Catholics and counting.
The diocese enters its sesquicentennial year with a special Mass at its 200-year-old mother church, the Cathedral of St. Peter, on March 3. As it does, church leaders look to the future as they celebrate the past.
“We have a lot of history here, even though we’re only 150 years old,” says the Most Rev. W. Francis Malooly, D.D., who became the ninth bishop of the diocese in 2008. “A lot of good things have happened over the years, but there are a lot of challenges at present time.”
Malooly points to several challenges of a national scale that impact the local churches. They include: finding ways to keep parishes strong and inclusive, finding ways to support Catholic education, and finding ways to build on the church’s long history of charitable outreach.
The diocese made headlines in 2016 when it closed Christ Our King parish after 90 years of service to Wilmington’s Old Ninth Ward neighborhood. Declining attendance and dwindling revenues made it impossible to support an infrastructure designed to serve 2,000 congregants. (St. Stanislaus Kostka on the city’s east side closed in 2009).
Church leaders stress that these closures are in no way indicative of the overall health of the diocese and, though two parishes have closed, four have opened between 1999 and 2007. Beach parishes, which were once summer-only operations, are now open year-round and growing rapidly. St. Jude the Apostle in Lewes counts nearly 4,000 registered parishioners, up from 941 in 2002, the year the former mission became a parish.
“The population moves, but it doesn’t move away from the church,” Malooly says.
Meanwhile, parishes in the city of Wilmington are successfully adapting to shifting demographics and a limited supply of new priests. (The diocese ordained just one priest in 2017; no ordinations are planned for 2018.) St. Patrick, St. Mary and the Cathedral of St. Peter are linked, meaning they share a pastor while retaining their separate identities.
“It’s working,” says Malooly. “We have one advantage here: Our parishes are small, so they’re more manageable and personal.”
Ethnic parishes remain cultural magnets for those seeking to merge—or not separate—their religious and ethnic identities. “Many young Polish families come to the Polish-language Mass at St. Hedwig’s,” says Malooly. “The parish struggles financially, but they’re a very strong community, and they’re not going anywhere.”
Parish leaders know the key to developing vibrant parishes as communities evolve is to create an environment where all feel welcome. “In the minds of our senior members, there’s no doubt that this is the Italian parish and nothing’s going to change that,” says the Rev. Nicholas R. Waseline, pastor of the iconic St. Anthony of Padua parish in Wilmington’s Little Italy. “But the [non-Italians] are not overwhelmed by the Italian culture or the Italian perspective.”
The Rev. Msgr. Steven P. Hurley, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Wilmington and vicar general of the diocese, agrees. “My biggest failure would be if someone were to walk into my church and not feel welcome,” he says. “It’s our marching orders from Pope Francis.”
The diocese has established several cultural ministries that serve the needs of a particular group as it integrates it into the wider religious community. The Office of Hispanic Ministry serves the diocese’s growing Hispanic population, which is estimated to be about 100,000. “They’re very strong in their faith and a real shot in the arm for the rest of us,” says Malooly.
Twenty parishes serve as regional Hispanic Ministry Centers to address various liturgical and outreach needs. In addition, weekly Spanish-language Masses are celebrated in season at two migrant labor camps.
The diocese also operates a Ministry for Black Catholics and one for Native Americans. The Deaf Ministry serves the special needs of the hearing-impaired community. A signed Mass is now offered bimonthly. Interpreted Masses are held each Sunday at various locations. Additionally, there are interpreters at each Sunday 9:15 Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Bear.
Catholic schools do much more than provide an education. They also play an important role in parish life by investing in young families and children early on.
“Catholic schools are the family of the parish,” says Malooly. “Good schools and good religious education programs make parishes stronger.”
Catholic schools have long been regarded for their academic strengths. But enrollments are slipping. The diocese reports a decline of 250 students attending the lower schools. The reason: Costs have risen dramatically, mostly because lay staffers have replaced nuns who did not draw salaries and benefits. Annual tuition for one child at a Catholic elementary school can run as high as $6,000. High school can reach $13,000. Those figures double for private institutions.
“The hardest thing for us is to find ways to support families,” Malooly says.
The diocese offers up to 50 percent in tuition assistance through its Share in the Spirit campaign. Share in the Spirit is an annual collection conducted at all Masses during the fourth week of September. Money collected combined with funds from the diocese’s Vision for the Future Educational Trust help make Catholic education a possibility for students whose parents struggle to pay full tuition.
The need is great. For the 2017–18 school year, the diocese distributed $601,500 to 306 students—an amount representing about 15 percent of the total calculated need of the nearly 1,000 applicants.
Additionally, the St. Patrick’s Day Society selects an eighth-grader from each of the schools in Wilmington for a $1,000 award to be used to defray the cost of tuition at a Catholic high school.
In December, St. Mark’s High School, which has seen its enrollment drop by 65 percent since 1996, received a $1.5 million gift from the Lawrence H. Hyde Jr. Charitable Trust.
Catholic Charities has assisted the disadvantaged in the area even before the diocese was formally established.
The organization traces its roots back to 1837 when the Daughters of Charity opened St. Peter’s Orphanage for Girls in Wilmington.
In the early years, the agency worked to protect the welfare of children by arranging adoptions and operating protectorates. As it grew, the organization’s outreach to the poor expanded to include an array of social services, housing and emergency services.
Catholic Charities was formally established in 1931. While its services co-evolved with the needs of the community, the agency has retained its focus on adults, children and families in the areas of counseling and behavioral health, basic needs, financial counseling, child care, and residential and elder services. Each year the agency serves about 75,000 low-income adults and children without regard to religion, age or ethnicity.
“Catholic Charities has always been responsive to the changes in family structure,” says Paula C. Savini, community relations director for Catholic Charities. “No matter how a family is defined, our goal is to provide the caring service needed to promote and restore the well-being of people and society. That’s been our mission for over 187 years.”
How those services are delivered has also changed, according to Savini. Today the emphasis is on empowerment as well as assistance.
“Services are delivered holistically because we have discovered that in talking to a client, we can learn not only what their immediate problem is, but also gain insight into what is triggering the problem, and then can work with them to eliminate the root cause,” she says. “A client has a better chance of improving their life when we help them find a way to deal with the stressors that are negatively impacting their self-sufficiency. We’re not just treating the symptoms their problems are creating.”
A big positive is an increase in the number of agencies that provide services, enabling Catholic Charities to partner with others to make a bigger impact. That’s true for adoption services, job training and homeless shelters in those areas where the agency does not maintain a facility.
“We can’t be everything to everybody,” says executive director Richelle A. Vible. “There are plenty of people to go around, so we’re happy to work with other organizations.”
After years of seeing clients in its various locations throughout the diocese, Catholic Charities is hitting the road. Last year it acquired and retrofitted a van that it will use to serve areas where it does not have a physical office.
“Our goal is to go to the communities where people can’t necessarily come to us,” Vible says. “We see tremendous poverty in the rural areas of Sussex County and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but they’re a little more hidden because they’re spread out.”
Vible notes that funding is a challenge, as it is for all nonprofits, but that the response to Catholic Charities has been very positive. The agency counts volunteers and material donations from Catholic and non-Catholic organizations and churches alike. It has also received strong support from the Annual Catholic Appeal, which in 2017 boasted pledges of more than $5 million, surpassing its target goal by more than half a million dollars.
“Funding is always a challenge but we’re very lucky to have such a broad base of support,” says Vible.