Earthquake-prone churches and a shortage of priests have shaken the Catholic Church into an unprecedented restructure.
Dozens of parishes in the lower North and upper South Island are set to merge after a review conducted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington, with some small churches likely to close.
While the diocese's 47 schools have escaped closure, it is expected those attached to parishes will be affected in future.
The plan - A Future Full Of Hope - was revealed to hundreds of parishioners in meetings last week, following an extensive two-year review.
"These proposed changes will mean some grief and loss... they are at the same time new opportunities to advance the mission of the church," Wellington Archbishop John Dew wrote.
There are 38 primary schools, nine high schools and 47 parishes in the diocese, an area that runs from Levin to Kaikoura. Each parish has at least one church, but there were no longer enough young priests coming through the ranks or funds to staff them all.
More than a third of the priests in the Wellington area had already officially retired, but were still helping with services. And up to 50 church buildings and five schools were labelled earthquake risks last year, with a price tag of at least $60 million to fix.
Under the new proposal, two or more parishes in each area would combine to create a completely new parish, with one shared council and finance committee. The administration would be set up in one building, with most existing churches retained as "mass centres", Archbishop Dew said.
"It would be up to parishes to decide if they thought they didn't need them [churches] down the track . . . they could say, ‘Do we need to use this as a mass centre?'
"Some parishes are quite small and sort of struggling, because of smaller numbers nowadays, to pay insurances and that kind of thing."
The frequency of mass was also likely to be reduced, with one sermon instead of two on any given Sunday. "We just don't have the numbers."
Despite this, most parishioners had been positive, Archbishop Dew said.
"Most people want to keep their own church open as a mass centre and will do everything they can to do that - it might mean some fundraising to keep them going, but people are prepared to do that."
Levin and Otaki are set to become one parish, and Paraparaumu and Waikanae another. Wairarapa, Carterton, Featherston and Masterton would combine, while in the South Island, Blenheim, Kaikoura and Picton would merge. Overall, the number of parishes would halve.
The church has previously said if a parish closed or amalgamated, thought would have to be given to the school's future - especially schools with smaller rolls.
The final plan will be released in September.
- The Dominion Post