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Cloud Settles Over a Gritty River Town


Steubenville, Ohio, is a tough steel-mining town of 19,000 people on the Ohio River. And it's "a hurtin' place," as someone there put it, as the mills have steadily gone silent or slashed their workforces.

A splash of beauty boosted spirits a few years ago when artists decorated 25 walls with nostalgic, historical murals. One shows singer Dean Martin, a Steubenville native, crooning and clowning with his comic partner, Jerry Lewis.

But there's not much smiling in Steubenville these days. The diocese bishop in the blue-collar, largely Catholic town is closing six churches. Dwindling congregations, he concluded, won't support the buildings' upkeep any longer. While the nation's population has just about doubled since 1950, Steubenville's is about half what it was back then, when the mills were roaring. Between 1980 and 2000, it lost people faster than any other American urban area.

So the parish will be centralized into a few churches, including a brand-new cathedral for which money is being raised. Masses in the city will be cut from 15 to four.

As the Boston Globe wrote about a constriction of churches in that city, "Each church closing means an irreparable loss of history, continuity, and culture." And tears for the hard-working families who, in many cases, paid money they could barely afford to make their home churches elegant.

Some Steubenville Catholics have stoically accepted a viewpoint, recently stated by Dominico Bettinelli Jr., a former editor of Catholic World magazine, in response to the Boston situation. Churches are not meant to be "monuments of artistic expression," he writes on his Web log, but rather, in his words, "places where families gather to worship the Lord as a body of believers."

Catholic families will soon be worshiping in fewer places in sad Steubenville, Ohio.