JEFFERSON COUNTY, OHIO (WTRF) – It is devastating news to many Catholics across the area. A plan is in place to combine two Ohio Dioceses, one of which is right in our own backyard.

Church officials say the declining population and hard economic times are to blame.

“My heart is broken. It feels like there is a hole in my soul, put it that way. But I would be negligent if I didn’t resolve the situation.”

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, Diocese of Steubenville

Bishop Jeffrey Montforton of the Diocese of Steubenville informed parish priests, deacons and staff of a merger with the Diocese of Columbus. The Diocese of Steubenville was recognized by Pope Pius XII in 1944. It included thirteen counties that formerly belonged to the Diocese of Columbus.

However, Bishop Monforton says a drastic decrease in population and tough economic times have taken a toll on the Diocese.

“In 1990 we had 24,729 Catholics that went regularly to Sunday Mass. In 2019 we had 13,702. The number are strong empirical evidence.”

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, Diocese of Steubenville

The process is underway but must go through several steps before it is finalized. Bishop Monforten says he has been talking with the Bishops of Ohio and a vote was taken on how to proceed. From there, the Bishop will conduct a survey among the members of his Diocese. That information will be sent to the United States Conference of Bishops in Baltimore.

“There will be a discussion and vote and then whatever the vote, whatever it entails all that information will go to the Holy See, also known as the Vatican and a decision will be made by Pope Francis.”

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, Diocese of Steubenville

Monforton says a merger will not affect local parishes and schools and there are no plans for any church closures.

“That’s not being considered. They only thing that will change at the parishes, during the Eucharistic prayer. Instead of saying ‘Our Bishop Jeffrey’ they will say ‘Our Bishop Earl.’ Otherwise it’s basically status quo. Catholic Central still stays. We got financial campaigns that are being looked at in St Clairsville. That must continue. The church will not leave the Ohio Valley.”

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, Diocese of Steubenville

Church officials say there is no exact timetable for the merger. Bishop Monforton says that while they are currently able to balance their budget, the financial outlook for the future is not good.