SALEM — Facing what its top priest calls a "significant financial and pastoral crisis," the Salem Catholic Collaborative is planning to convert one church into a shrine and merge two others.

In a letter to parishioners, the Rev. Robert Connors said the collaborative's leadership has recommended turning St. John the Baptist Parish into a shrine in honor of Pope John Paul II and merging St. James and Immaculate Conception.

The creation of a shrine at St. John the Baptist, which opened in 1903, would end its original mission to serve the Polish immigrant community, Connors said.

Meanwhile, St. James and Immaculate Conception would both remain open as churches, but would merge into one new parish under a new, yet-to-be-determined name.

The plan has been presented to the Archdiocese of Boston's priests' council. The council is scheduled to vote June 20 and send its recommendation to Cardinal Sean O'Malley for his approval. The collaborative has scheduled an open meeting for June 8 at 7 p.m. at St. James Church to discuss the plans and answer questions.

In his letter, Connors said the changes are needed to deal with decreased attendance, donations and participation at all three parishes. The parishes joined as a collaborative in 2013 and share one pastor, clergy, staff and other resources.

The merger of St. James and Immaculate Conception would enable the collaborative to sell all of the "latent properties" of the two parishes to help pay off its "significant debt" to the Archdiocese of Boston and to establish an endowment for the future, Connors wrote. St. James and St. John's both have former school buildings that are closed.

Connors could not be reached for comment for more specifics on the changes. In his letter, he described the shrine at St. John the Baptist as a place where "some of the Polish traditions could be kept." He said the archdiocese's regional Episcopal vicar is trying to get finances and leadership to erect the shrine, which would operate separately from the Salem collaborative.

Salem resident Paul Plecinoga, whose family has been involved in St. John the Baptist Church since it began in 1903, said he agreed with the decision to turn the church into a shrine. 

"They've got to do something to try to save it," he said. "The Polish people in the area need something. They'll still be able to have the Polish culture."

If Cardinal O'Malley approves the plan, he will appoint a new pastor to lead the Salem collaborative, Connors said. Connors has been serving as administrator for the collaborative until a pastor is named. The new pastor will be the only full-time assigned priest for the merged St. James/Immaculate Conception parish.

The names of the two churches cannot be legally changed, but Connors said there will be a new name and identity for the new parish. Ideas can be submitted to info@salemcatholiccommunity.org.

Archdiocese of Boston spokesman Terrence Donilon said the proposed changes have not been approved yet, but said officials are "pleased with the progress and the consultations."

In his letter, Connors said it is time for members of all three parishes to "let go" of past feelings and emotions.

"Now, it is the time to look forward, to put past issues and hurts aside and to come together to build a new Catholic community of joyful hope and prayer," he said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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