NEW CASTLE, Pa. (AP) — After breakfast at McDonald's and his morning prayers, the Rev. Frank Almade arrived around 8:30 at the office of St. Vitus Church, one of four Roman Catholic parishes he oversees here in this Lawrence County seat.

Shortly before 10 a.m., he went to the sacristy to put on his vestments for Mass and entered the sanctuary with two other robed men helping as altar servers.

There, about 50 dark-clad mourners, mostly clustered in front, were gathered in the round, modern-style sanctuary for the funeral of a 79-year-old parishioner.

Father Almade made an opening prayer and shook holy water onto the black box containing the cremains. Then, after a standard Catholic funeral hymn, "I am the Bread of Life," he welcomed family members by name, expressed sympathies and, after the Scripture readings, offered a homily during which he used words to do what he always seeks to do when he preaches: touch the heart.

"Even as you look backwards and tell all those stories," about the deceased, he said, "Also look forward in hope to when you see him in heaven."

After a lunchtime planning session with his fellow priests, touching base with office staff members and making visits to the parish school and a chapel where parishioners keep a round-the-clock prayer vigil, he ended the workday in the evening with a meeting of the pastoral councils, or advisory bodies, of the four parishes he oversees.

With a confident and energetic demeanor that belies his 63 years, and with an organizational style that majors in planning and delegating, Father Almade doesn't give the impression of being hurried.

Yet he and a handful of other priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh who oversee four churches at once represent the most dramatic manifestation of a growing reality that is prompting the diocese to plan the largest downsizing of parishes in its six-county region in a generation.

Mass attendance, school enrollment and other measures of Catholic participation are down by 40 percent or more in the diocese since 2000, and the number of active priests has gone down by a third and is expected to decrease by half again by 2025. The New Castle parishes have healthy budgets and buildings, unlike many parishes elsewhere, but their ranks are slowly declining — with two-and-a-half funerals for every baptism.

Father Almade has led the four parishes since 2012, with two other full-time priests assisting him and retired priests helping. They're increasingly stretched to cover the Masses, hospital visits and other vital tasks. They also help out with Masses in outlying Lawrence County parishes. Father Almade's workload also includes counseling engaged couples, baptizing babies, writing for the bulletin and Catholic publications, teaching courses and keeping tabs on St. Vitus's parish school, among various administrative tasks.

When he was ordained 38 years ago, the norm was to have multiple priests per parish, not multiple parishes per priest. "If you had said to me I would end up a priest of four parishes, I would have said, 'What are you smoking?' " said Father Almade. "Things have changed."

A handful of other pastors serve as many as four churches, including in the Beechview-Brookline and Carrick areas, and most wear various hats. One reason for the diocese's massive restructuring is to create a more manageable workload for priests.

Most parishes will merge with at least one other parish. Diocesan boards are currently evaluating public feedback on proposals to shutter dozens of existing churches — recommendations expected to undergo revisions before heading to Bishop David Zubik for final approval in 2018.

In New Castle, for example, one proposal is to merge all four parishes into one unit, closing three of the sanctuaries. In another scenario, all seven Lawrence County parishes would merge into one, closing all but two buildings.

When the New Castle priests are at full staff, they're usually able to meet the norm under church law that priests should say no more than three Masses on a weekend, except for a pastoral necessity.

But a week ago, one such pastoral necessity came up. With one priest on vacation, Father Almade ended up saying five Masses within 24 hours at the four parishes:

At 4 p.m., he celebrated Mass at St. Vitus Church. After that, he did three baptisms. He then went over to St. Vincent de Paul Church for a 6 p.m. Mass. On Sunday, he had Masses at 8 a.m. at Mary, Mother of Hope Church, then at 9:30 at St. Joseph the Worker Church. Then he returned to Mary, Mother of Hope to hear confessions and then celebrate Mass..

Even though the churches are all within 2 or 3 miles, it becomes easy to see why he puts more than 20,000 miles a year on his Honda Accord.

Yes, Father Almade said, it will be easier for priests when they'll have to go to fewer church sites.

"But it will be very painful for people" who lose their churches, he said. "We'll feel their pain, we'll see their pain."

He knows. More than a decade ago, Father Almade was pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, comprising four merged parishes in Pittsburgh's Hilltop neighborhoods. The parish could no longer keep all four buildings open, and he had to oversee the closing of three of them.

"It was not fun," he said. "You do it because you have to, not because you want to."

Equally painful was the closing of the parish's school, which he felt was a bright spot in the struggling Hilltop.

"We were good, in a place where we needed to be good. But we didn't have the money," he said.

In 2016, St. John Vianney Parish closed entirely.

Father Almade spoke in the office at St. Vitus, where the once-separate parishes' office workers were recently brought together. The workers said it's easier to communicate and work together in person.

"Father's got it all in his head," said Nancy Bonk. "We just try to sometimes put it all down on paper and keep up with it."

Wanting to do more

At the end of the funeral Mass, Father Almade stood at the back of the sanctuary, near the banks of votive candles and the sleek statues of saints, and took time to shake the hands of all the attendees.

It's the kind of work he cherishes but wishes he could do more of.

"The more I spend time on making sure the administrative and building issues are taken care of, I probably don't spend enough time doing what Pope Francis wants us to do, and that's pastoral work. You can't spend the kind of time you'd like to with people who are rejoicing or people who are grieving."

Later on Tuesday, Father Almade gathered over a lunch of chicken and pasta and green salads with his fellow priests amid the dark wood furniture at the rectory of Mary, Mother of Hope. After the meal, he and the Revs. William Siple and Joseph Codori, the parochial vicars, began planning the week ahead, adjusting for a funeral and planning for an upcoming service of anointing the sick.

Father Codori typed his entries into his smartphone. Fathers Almade and Siple entered theirs into spiral-bound calendars, not fully trusting the phones they carry.

The priests share the rectory, giving them a nucleus of community even as they scatter each day to various assignments.

The vicars credit Father Almade for planning things well. They joke about the occasional time when two of them show up at the same church for Mass, but that's rare.

After lunch Father Almade returns to St. Vitus and pays a visit to the parish school, with about 125 students from pre-K to eighth grade.

He visits the religion class for seventh and eighth grades, which has been studying biblical parables and even writing some of their own. Father Almade talks with the class about how Jesus used agricultural and other images, familiar to his listeners, to teach deeper spiritual truths.

The students, clad in burgundy school T-shirts, said they appreciate the pastor's visits.

"I know he must be really busy, but he always has time to go to our events," said eighth-grader Mason Finamore.

It was around that age that Father Almade began his journey to the priesthood. He grew up in Baldwin Borough and graduated from Bishop's Latin School in Pittsburgh.

His steelworker father encouraged his vocation, but he embraced the call to priesthood himself. He went to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore and earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Duquesne University, with a particular interest in Catholic social ethics. His dissertation was on just wages for church employees.

"I've never seen celibacy as a burden," he said. "At some points I think, getting married and having kids would be nice," but it's not in the job description. "I have to say I've never been lonely."

Maintaining good friendships is key. That's evidenced from the photos in his office showing him on pilgrimages and vacations with priests and other close friends. The photos share space with icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to whom he has a particular devotion; photos of Pope Francis; and a concert photo of Bruce Springsteen.

Later in the afternoon, he stopped by the small Eucharistic Adoration Chapel across the street from Mary, Mother of Hope Church. He took his turn among parishioners who maintain a 24-hour-a-day prayer vigil. He and a handful of others sat in silent meditation on the firm wooden pews, their pew racks festooned in rosaries, the room quiet except for the traffic outside.

Arriving later at a Mexican restaurant for dinner, he saw a family of parishioners having a birthday party. "What are you having? A taco?" he said to one of the children. Others came up to greet him as well.

After dinner, he drove back in the dark, rainy evening to Mary, Mother of Hope, where he and about a dozen and a half other people descended the steps to the basement for a meeting of the pastoral councils of the four parishes.

They sat at folding tables; at their backs were large framed photos depicting the grandeur of the nearly century-old sanctuary above them — the soaring Gothic vaults, the glowing rose windows and the intricately carved altar.

Father Almade led a review of goals met — new Bible classes, a speaker series, a pledge drive — and new goals, such as developing a mobile app with push notifications for parish news.

"Do I see blank eyes as to what a new app is?" he said to the knowing chuckles of the generally older group.

Church membership declining

Council members said that bringing the four parishes together has helped.

"We all have the same issues," such as "trying to bring the youth in," said Patty Lepore of the St. Vincent council.

Later in the meeting, the members voice some of the struggles felt here and elsewhere in the diocese.

Mass attendance in New Castle actually was up last year over the year before, but the combined membership of 13,739 has been sliding, mirroring the city's population decline.

The members spoke of young adults who abandon their childhood faith with little prospect of returning, of parents who show up for their children's first communions and little else, of people who don't feel they fit into church.

One woman wondered what the church could do to invite those struggling with addictions.

"We need professionals, but sometimes they want somebody to talk to," she said.

Father Almade agreed but said he struggles to come up with an adequate response.

A couple of weeks ago, he was called to a hospital at 1 a.m. to give the sacrament of anointing (last rites) to a 46-year-old man who had apparently overdosed and would later die. At his bedside were the man's parents in their 70s. They told him they had already lost another son to an overdose.

"I feel a little lost as to what we can do," Father Almade said. "Whether it would be on the point of helping people or supporting families."

Asked at one point what he values most as a priest, Father Almade took some time to think about it. In an email, he said: "That my life has a purpose. That purpose is divinely ordered (a vocation), and it is directed toward helping people, praying with folks, and allowing me to put my Catholic Christian faith into action."

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com