Three Catholic parishes in New Bedford's North End are, for lack of a better term, merging into one to form the new St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish. The change takes effect on October 11, but according to the Fall River Diocese, it has been in the works for the better part of two years. The move means two more Catholic churches will close and their diminishing flocks will meld into the new parish, based at St. Mary's Church on Tarkiln Hill Road.

Our Lady of Fatima, located at 4256 Acushnet Avenue in the city's Sassaquin neighborhood, and St. Joseph-St. Therese Church, at 51 Duncan Street across from Brooklawn Park, will cease to operate. Sacred items from all three churches will become part of the new St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish at St. Mary's.

While the Diocese attempts to put the best spin on the consolidation, the hard fact is that the number of Catholics is shrinking, making it increasingly difficult to maintain as many structures as before. The Religious News Service reported a year ago on what it calls "the steady hemorrhage of Catholic clergy worldwide," which it attributes to several factors including the clergy sex abuse scandal.

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The big question remains, why are so many Catholics abandoning the church? The exodus began long before the sex scandal, but what caused it?

Callers to my Tuesday program noted the popularity of "New Life" churches and the emergence of "storefront" Christian churches throughout the city as evidence that people have not lost their faith, just their faith in the Catholic Church. Some suggested the Catholic Church is "unrelatable" and relies too much on ceremony and not enough on the message of God.

Whatever the reason, Catholic churches continue to close throughout the region and congregations are getting increasingly smaller as older more traditional Catholics age. One has to wonder if there will be any Catholic churches left in New Bedford at all when my children reach my age.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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