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Ken Gabriel reads his bible as Pastor Rick gives the reading during the Sunday service at Stewart Methodists Church in Stewart, Ohio. The stained glass in the church came from a church that was about to be torn down in Washington D.C. and was purchased with the help of the women in the church in 1914 when Stewart Methodist was built.

February 8, 2023

Fading Faith

Southeast Ohio churches see a decline in attendance, funding

By Ryan Grzybowski | For The Post

Deep in the hills of Appalachia sits Stewart United Methodist Church. In a parish in Southeast Ohio, Pastor Rick Seiter leads a service for a mere seven members.

Due to membership attendance and limited UMC pastors in the area, Seiter travels between Stewart United Methodist and Canaanville United Methodist each Sunday to ensure both churches have a service.

"We'd like to know why people aren't coming to church anymore," Seiter said.

Judy Morgan, treasurer of Stewart United Methodist, said the church's budget will be in a $2,500 deficit this year due to a lack of members attending and donating. Any small drop in their attendance could impact the church's funds, Morgan said.

Membership loss has become a commonality among rural churches in Appalachia. A decrease in funding has left churches in an unsettling state, depicting a crisis that may one day cause them to close their doors for good.

A recent Pew Research study revealed that 38% of adults in Ohio report going to church at least once a week.

Pastor Rick prays in front of the altar at Stewart United Methodist Church in Stewart, Ohio.

Seiter said he saw the impact of low attendance rates. He previously worked as a pastor for Pisgah United Methodist Church in Athens before the parish shut down due to low attendance. Those members were forced to find other churches to attend.

"(The church) got down to four people … they were getting to a point where they were not able to pay their bills," Seiter said. "So they felt the need to close."

Disbanding a church

St. Mary of the Hills Catholic Church sits along route 78 in Buchtel, Ohio, located in Athens County. The church has been closed since the end of June 2022 due to a lack of members coming, little income and stretch of resources by the Diocese of Steubenville.

Low attendance numbers and a lack of funding were the reasons many Southeastern Ohio churches closed their doors to the public. For St. Mary of the Hills Church in Buchtel, 17645 Bank St., its community saw a lasting impact when its membership diminished.

On June 26, 2022, Rev. Father Mark Moore held the church's last mass. The church closed its doors for good on June 30.

Father Moore began his work at the church after its former resident priest, Henry Christopher Foxhoven, sexually abused an underage parishioner at Holy Cross in Glouster while also serving at St. Mary of the Hill. Foxhoven was later found guilty of sexual batteryand sent to prison for 12 years, according to the Zanesville Time Recorder.

The church was left without a leader, so Moore was sent to serve the parish. However, it wasn't enough to keep the church open.

"The parish was dying," Moore said. "There were very few younger members."

Moore was worried the parish's diminished attendance would impact the charitable and Evangelical outreach in Buchtel. Parishioners were losing their identity and a place to worship their faith, he said.

"We don't have the resources that an urban or suburban parish would have," Moore said. "So financially, it's sometimes a struggle for some parishes to exist."

Moore and the Diocese of Steubenville took three years to close the parish. During that time, they searched for another use for the building as a possible mission church. As of December, the church remains empty.

Cheryl Stickdorn teaches Alayna, 7, and Ava, 7, and Ellie, 7 work on a craft for Thanksgiving writing what they were thankful for. They hold class each Sunday and Wednesday while the Sunday service was going on.

On Oct. 14, 2022, Bishop Robert Barron announced a plan to merge the Diocese of Steubenville back into the Diocese of Columbus. The Diocese of Steubenville was originally created in 1944 out of the Columbus area. The change was due to a lack of priests available for services, economic pressures and demographic shifts in the area, according to The Steubenville Register.

United Pentecostal Church

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The United Pentecostal Church, 333 Main St., in southern Perry County, is one of three remaining churches within the city limits. The other two are the Methodist and Baptist churches in the center of town.

In the past, religion held great significance for the residents of New Straitsville. However, that has altered over time. Cheryl Stickdorn has lived in New Straitsville most of her life and is an active member and a Sunday school teacher at the United Pentecostal Church. She said there was a heavy religious presence in the town for the majority of the 20th century.

"They even had the Bibles open in the bars," Stickdorn said.

Despite the construction of a new church building in the early 2000s, the number of members has continued to decrease.

Cheryl Stickdorn sits on her couch with Sandy, one of her rescue cats she keeps in her house located in New Straitsville, Ohio.

New Straitsville was once a bustling coal mining town that saw its peak of production in 1918 and again in the 1960s. When the coal industry lost its foothold as a major source of fuel, Southeast Ohio towns such as New Straitsville faced hardships. Businesses closed, and residents moved out of the area. The 2020 census revealed the population in New Straitsville village is 652, compared to its population of 2,208 in 1920.

On March 23, 1924, 90 people attended service with an offering of $2.59, equivalent to $44.33 in 2022, according to the Ohio Apostolic News. On Dec. 4, 2022, the church saw an attendance number of 35 people and an offering of $83, Stickdorn said.

"Nones" on the Rise

"Nones" is a popular term used in recent years to describe those who aren't religiously affiliated: atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. 22% of Ohioans fall under that identity, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. That demographic of people might have either been raised in a church or never attended but are currently unaffiliated with a religion.

Those who have left the church have various reasons for their choice. Many people aren't affiliated with a religion because they question religious teaching, according to the same Pew Research Center survey. Another top response on a recent survey was that individuals do not like the position the churches take on political and social issues.

Jessie Donohue was raised in Meigs County and went to the Pentecostal church with her family. Although she used to attend church services, she no longer does. One-third of people under 30 years old, like Donohue, are leading the trend compared to the other age groups Pew surveyed.

Like Donohue, many others in her age group have distanced themselves from their church, driven by their personal views on LGBTQ+ rights and issues like abortion. Some young individuals who have relocated to Ohio find it challenging to maintain their religious beliefs..

Campus Ministry

Students at Ohio University often find it difficult to find a place to practice their faith with fellow students in Athens.

Madeline Daley, a sophomore studying media arts

production, is a part of OU Catholics. Her choice to continue practicing her faith in college has led her to partake in religious student organizations on and off campus.

"I just saw a lot of relativism in the world," Daley said. "Just the ability to ask questions … made it so that the truth was able to be communicated, and I could see that there isn't relativism with the Catholic Church."

Her religion inspired her to connect with like-minded individuals on campus with OU Catholics. Though many college students may shy away from religious organizations on campus, Daley said she remains optimistic about students' future.

"I see hope for students actually seeing that Catholicism is alive and current, and not an archaic belief," Daley said. "It can actually help with all aspects of someone's life."

Reflection on the Future

In Murry City, the former St. Philip Neri's Catholic Church which was founded in 1903 now sits vacant on route 78, and hocking hill sitting in the background. The church's owner looks to turn it into an event center and no religious practices are planned to take place soon.

The Pew Research Center recently estimated that by 2070, the number of Americans who identify as Christian would fall near or below 50% of the population, and that percentage could fall as low as 34%. Those identifying as "none" have been estimated to rise to as much as 52% of the U.S. population in 2070.

Amid cultural change, churches in Appalachia are reviewing their practices and considering reasons for declining attendance. As closures trickle down, regular attendees like Stickdorn look back to the last century and acknowledge how the evolution of religious practices has changed the way churches operate today.

"God has been taken out of everything," Stickdown said. "If you really stop and think and look at the whole picture, that's the reason we're in the condition we're at now."

AUTHOR:Ryan Grzybowski
EDITOR: Hannah Campbell
PHOTOGRAPHER: Ryan Grzybowski