Empty pews are discouraging sign for St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson

·4 min read

HUDSON — After more than 125 years, St. Luke's Episcopal Church may be on its last legs.

“The church is struggling," said Bill Pye, the church's senior warden. "We have about 100 people listed (as members of the congregation), but very few of them actually come to church."

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, Aug. 1, 2022.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, Aug. 1, 2022.

The church, which sits near the downtown rotary at 5 Washington St., was founded in 1895. Missionaries from Marlborough had put together a fund to build a church in Hudson, allowing residents there to attend Mass without having to trek over the hills to the city.

The parish has been dealing with a diminishing congregation for decades.

COVID-19 exacerbated the already dwindling attendance figures, which were further affected earlier this year by the lack of a regular priest. According to the church’s board of directors, only a dozen or so parishioners attend Sunday services, with a handful of others watching digitally via Zoom or through the church’s Facebook page.

That level of participation is not enough to sustain the church over the long haul, officials say, and like many houses of worship, St. Luke’s is struggling to attract new parishioners. Services and programs, such as Sunday School and community dinners, have been cut due to a lack of interest and a need for volunteers.

Cynthia Janeiro-Ehlke, administrator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, waters flowers on the altar, Aug. 2, 2022.
Cynthia Janeiro-Ehlke, administrator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, waters flowers on the altar, Aug. 2, 2022.

“We had two Sunday School teachers, but one of them retired and the other needed to take a break from teaching, and we didn’t have that big of a demand," said Pye. "We wanted to start it back up, and we spoke to parents who seemed interested, but a lot of them couldn’t commit, and it’s tough to do if you don’t have commitments."

The discontinuing of community dinners was caused not by funding shortages, but due to the church lacking adequate staffing. The town provides funding for local groups to host community dinners for those who are food insecure, but St. Luke’s does not have enough volunteers to run events.

“The church can’t offer anything unless it has volunteers and people on-site," said June Miller, altar guild directress at St. Luke’s. "All you can do is try to maintain that worship schedule. Anything else just isn’t possible, and that isn’t a good platform."

The interior of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, Aug, 2, 2022.
The interior of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hudson, Aug, 2, 2022.

The church has not had a full-time priest since the end of last year, when the Rev. James Kodera retired after 21 years. The parish has filled the void of Sunday Mass by relying on a rotation of substitutes, but officials say a permanent priest is paramount to the parish’s survival.

“Clerical leadership is going to be what either makes or breaks this place,” Miller said. “If we don’t have it, and it’s not enthusiastic, we don’t have a future.”

St. Luke’s Treasurer Logan King said the cost of a full-time priest is approximately $80,000 annually, with experienced priests costing more. He said the church’s entire budget is roughly that amount.

“We can’t afford a full-time priest, so what we would be looking at is a part-time priest,” King said.

But until a priest is found, the board agrees the church can’t evolve and grow to a more sustainable parishioner base. Pye said the church is going to search for a part-time priest that can provide stability and leadership.

“There is no downside to at least trying to find something that can work,” he said.

Churches of all denominations are facing troubles due to shrinking congregations and other challenges. In February, ABC News reported that church attendance throughout the country had declined 45% since the start of the pandemic.

If St. Luke’s cannot find a new priest and the situation remains financially untenable, the church would have to either close or merge with another entity. The nearest episcopal churches are St. Elizabeth’s in Sudbury and St. Mark’s in Southborough.

While the possibility of a merger exists, there are challenges to such a strategy, said King. One consistent hurdle is that each parish feels attached to its own building and is unwilling to part with it to form a larger congregation, he said.

"No one wants to give up their building, so when it might make sense for three or four small parishes to come together and form one vibrant one, nobody wants to be the one to give up their space," King said.

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: Hudson episcopal church hopes to find permanent priest to stay open