Two of the three Catholic churches on the Island have closed down for the winter season, leaving just one - Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs - to serve the Vineyard's Roman Catholics.

The seasonal closures aren't for lack of interest. Church leaders blame a critical shortage of area priests and a financial deficit tied to rising heating oil costs and building repairs.

With Advent season in full swing, St. Augustine's in Vineyard Haven and St. Elizabeth's in Edgartown are both dark. The heat is off but the doors are opened with a few lights. A well lit creche in front of each is the sole sign of the Christmas season, and they click on at night with the help of photo electric cells.


"We got an estimate on the fuel for this winter. It was really crazy," said the Rev. Michael Nagle, the Island's only Catholic pastor. "That precipitated our making our decision. We really don't have a need for three churches in the winter."

That action means Our Lady Star of the Sea is bustling with high attendance at Saturday afternoon mass and during the several masses held on Sunday. The building seats 350 people.

The reason for the consolidation is rooted in troubles both on and off the Island, where Catholic churches collectively suffered a $63,000 deficit this year.

Heating oil bills burned through church coffers. Last winter they spent at least $4,800 to heat St. Elizabeth's, just to keep it at 60 degrees except on Sunday mornings. They spent between $9,000 and $10,000 to heat St. Augustine's. The Parish Center, housed in the former Oak Bluffs School, ran up at least $10,000 in heating costs.

While attendance at the three churches has remained solid over the years, the amount of money coming in hasn't kept up with operational costs.

Complicating matters even more was the Nov. 4 decision by the Diocese of Fall River to bring the Rev. John C. Ozug from the Vineyard back to the mainland to take charge of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in New Bedford. The move came after that church's priest was arrested by state police and charged with possession of child pornography.

Statewide, Catholic leaders have closed numerous parishes due to lagging church attendance and fiscal problems made worse by clergy sex abuse scandals.

Back on the Vineyard, the departure of Father Ozug - who had served the Island for seven years - left Father Nagle as the sole priest on the Island. "Thursday afternoon he got the call. He had Saturday and Sunday to say goodbye and he was there on Tuesday."

Even before Reverend Ozug left, church leaders had decided to consolidate for the winter months. "Back in the spring and into the summer we looked at the shortfall," said Steve Bernier, who owns Cronig's Market and is a member of the church finance committee.

"This isn't just about money," he added. "It is more about a religious community. We asked ourselves if we could build community togetherness."

The closings have brought Vineyarders from different towns together in an entirely new way, said Reverend Nagle.

Still, the bottom line couldn't be ignored. Had all three churches remained open, Mr. Bernier said they would probably be spending $75,000 in fuel costs alone. "Now we are saying that with all the adjustments we are shooting for a $45,000 expense."

Mr. Bernier said that the decision to close two churches this winter could be reversed next year. "This winter will show us what we save," he said. "We are experimenting, trying to learn what moves us and what works."

There has been reticence within the church membership over the change, and Reverend Nagle has heard it. Those accustomed to going to either the Edgartown or the Vineyard Haven church have had to adjust. Father Nagle said efforts have been made to introduce car pooling.

But a telltale sign of whether it is working is the weekend attendance at the Oak Bluffs church. "In November we did a head count, we averaged 700 people a weekend for five services," Reverend Nagle said.

Father Nagle said a benefit of the change is that people are meeting each other for the first time or in other cases getting reacquainted.

One reason why Our Lady Star of the Sea was chosen as the church to stay open through the winter was its middle-point status.

"There is much more parking, and it is much more efficient to heat. We have a parish center; the kids go from there over to the parish house for religious education," said Reverend Nagle. "It is working pretty nicely."

Some issues, however, are more severe. Priests have become an endangered species.

When Reverend Nagle arrived on the Island in June of 1994, his duties were limited. "I only served at St. Augustine's Parish in Vineyard Haven. Two years after that I was appointed pastor of all three. Instead of three kitchen programs, we now have one. We gradually blended all three parish councils into one," he said.

"When we bought the old Oak Bluffs School, that became the center for education, the parish office. Everything was acting as one. I called myself the Roman Catholic Parishes of Martha's Vineyard."

Now the Island entity is called the Good Shepherd Parish. "We still have three churches but it is all under one umbrella," Reverend Nagle said. In the last year they started a newsletter on the Internet for all parishioners:

"The price of heating goes up. We go from three churches to one church and three or four weeks later all of a sudden my associate gets transferred. It was fortuitous. It was a blessing that we did what we did," Father Nagle said.

Contributions to the church are up, a sign that people are taking the cost issues seriously. Tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m., church members are meeting for a potluck supper at the parish center in Oak Bluffs.