The Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, is expected to announce to priests Monday that a process is underway that will see the diocese merge with the neighboring see of Columbus.
Senior U.S. and Vatican sources have confirmed to The Pillar that a merger process between the dioceses is underway, and that Steubenville priests and chancery personnel will be informed of the merger process at an all-hands meeting Monday afternoon.
The Steubenville diocese would be the second U.S. diocese to be merged in recent years with a larger neighbor — the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, was in 2020 merged with the Archdiocese of Anchorage.
The Steubenville diocese is home to fewer than 40,000 Catholics in 13 counties of Appalachian southeastern Ohio, who are served by 36 active priests, according to the diocese. In 2020, the diocese said it had seven seminarians.
The neighboring Diocese of Columbus consists of nearly 300,000 Catholics and almost 150 diocesan priests. In December, the Columbus diocese said it had 18 seminarians.
But while a formal merger process is underway, a decision on the issue is not a done deal. The priests of the diocese and the bishops of the United States will be consulted before the process is complete and a decision made, U.S. and Vatican sources told The Pillar.
Sources have told The Pillar that the USCCB is expected to have a consultative vote on the matter during the annual fall meeting of conference, which will take place in Baltimore next month.
If a final decision to merge the dioceses is made at the Vatican, an anticipated merger could formally take place as early as next spring.
A spokesman for the Steubenville diocese told The Pillar Monday morning that he could not comment “at this point” about the prospect of a merger.
“I know they’ve talked about it, but we’re going to find out more today, possibly,” the spokesman added.
The Steubenville diocese has faced several significant challenges in recent years.
The diocesan Holy Name Cathedral was closed in 2014 for renovations, but the cathedral renovation project stalled - for lack of funds - in 2018. Earlier this year, Bishop Jeffrey Montforton announced he was pulling the plug on the renovation project, but it was not clear what local church would serve as diocesan cathedral.
The cathedral renovation project “cannot be a financial burden, an albatross, to the diocese,” Montforton explained in the May 13 issue of the diocesan newspaper.
“We have a building that has not been cared for in more than a decade and it is not financially prudent to continue the plans to renovate Holy Name Cathedral,” the bishop added.
“I would not have started the project if I knew the true financial picture of the diocese at that time.”
In July 2020, former diocesan comptroller David Franklin admitted in federal court that he had embezzled almost $300,000 from the diocese, and that he had failed to turn over to the IRS nearly $2.8 million payroll taxes withheld by the diocese from employees. Franklin’s financial crimes cost the diocese more than $900,000 in interest and penalties, in addition to its $2.8 million debt to the IRS.
In August 2020, Monsignor Kurt Kemo admitted that while he served as diocesan vicar general, he had stolen more than $300,000 from the diocese, in order to pay for flying lessons, purchase expensive clothing, and otherwise subsidize his lifestyle. The priest was sentenced to six months in an Ohio penitentiary.
If finalized, a merger of the two Ohio dioceses would fall into a pattern of episcopal consolidation by the Holy See in recent years. While the full extinctive merger of one diocese into another remains historically rare, Pope Francis has in recent years united several dioceses in persona Episcopi — appointing one bishop to lead two adjacent sees, even while they remain independent of each other — in Italy, Canada, the UK, and Ireland.
The Diocese of Steubenville began as an outgrowth of the neighboring Columbus diocese.
Pope Pius XII erected the Steubenville diocese on Oct. 21, 1944, carving out 13 counties in southeastern Ohio previously belonging to the Diocese of Columbus: Athens, Belmont, Carroll, Gallia, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Lawrence, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Noble, and Washington Counties.
But the once-vital city of Steubenville has fallen into hard times. The city’s population dropped from more than 35,000 in 1950 to fewer than 20,000 people today. And a decades-long decline of the U.S. steel industry has contributed to poverty in the region, as jobs have become hard to come by.
Bishop Monforton of Steubenville launched a five-year strategic plan for his diocese in October 2020.
The 2020-2025 plan noted that “because the diocese is located, not only in Appalachia, but also is positioned in the Rust Belt of the United States, it suffers from the ills attached to a decline in population – an estimated 493,252 people in the 13 counties – and, therefore, fewer Catholics, 35,865 estimated, than in past years.”
It went on: “Catholics make up 7 percent of the total population in the diocesan counties. Despite their small numbers in some locales, Catholics in the diocese continue to be devoted to their parishes and support them with time, talent and treasure, whenever possible.”
Bishop Monforton was installed in 2012 and is assisted by 36 active priests and 14 deacons.
The diocese has had five bishops since its creation: Bishop John King Mussio, Bishop Albert H. Ottenweller, Bishop Gilbert I. Sheldon, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, and Bishop Monforton.
Until now, the Catholic Conference of Ohio has comprised six dioceses: the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Diocese of Cleveland, the Diocese of Columbus, the Diocese of Steubenville, the Diocese of Toledo, and the Diocese of Youngstown.
Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Columbus on March 3, 1868. Until now, it has covered 23 counties, comprising more than 278,000 Catholics. It is led by Bishop Earl K. Fernandes, 50, who was appointed to the post in April. He is the first Indian-American to head a U.S. Latin Catholic diocese.
If a merger is completed, it is not clear what might happen to Montforton — the bishop is only 59, which suggests he would likely be transferred to another diocesan see.
The Pillar's senior contributor Luke Coppen contributed to this report.
Editor's note: The diocese of Steubenville has 36 active priests, according to its most recent figures. A previous version of this report, citing a 2020 report, stated that the diocese had 43. The Pillar's report has been updated.