WELLESLEY, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The sign outside St. James Church in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley sums up Catholicism's deepening struggles in the United States.
"Still searching for a priest," it reads. Another sign affixed to its thick doors pleads: "Save St. James."
Facing dwindling congregations, shifting demographics and a drain on cash from settling sexual abuse lawsuits, Roman Catholic churches are shuttering at a quickening pace in a traditional stronghold, the U.S. Northeast.
The trend underscores a growing problem facing the U.S. Catholic church: too many parishes in the Northeast and not enough for growing Hispanic populations in the Southwest.
In Massachusetts, the Diocese of Worcester -- which covers New England's second-largest city -- shut five parishes in July. The neighboring Diocese of Springfield said in August it would shut 10 more parishes and nine buildings by January 1.
Camden Diocese in New Jersey said in April it would close nearly half of its 124 churches within two years. Dozens of parishes in New York state are being shut.
Bishops cite a number of reasons -- from rising heating costs to aging priests and the steady decline of the Irish and Italian immigrants who transformed Boston from overwhelmingly Protestant to largely Catholic in the mid 19th Century. Today, Mexicans are the top immigrant group in the United States, bringing an influx of Catholics to the Southwest.
"Our present infrastructure isn't sustainable," said Msgr. John J. Bonzagni, director of pastoral planning at the Diocese of Springfield, which expects to have 25 fewer priests in just seven years.
The trend also suggests that scars from the six-year-old clergy abuse scandal may be deepening rather than fading.
The scandal has cost U.S. Catholic archdioceses $2 billion, and it is not over. In May, a former altar boy who accused a priest of molesting him 30 years ago won an $8.7 million jury verdict against Vermont's Diocese of Burlington. A judge put a $10 million lien on the diocese's headquarters.
More than 850 parishes nationwide have shut since 1995 -- the majority since 2000, according to figures compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, a Catholic university in Washington.
The sign outside St. James Church in Wellesley, a suburb 12 miles west of Boston, reflects an extreme case.
St. James was one of more than 60 parishes shut by the Archdiocese of Boston in a reorganization that began in 2004, two years after many U.S. bishops were found to have moved priests known to have abused minors to new parishes instead of defrocking them or reporting them to authorities.
But many of its parishioners refuse to leave. Each Sunday, about two dozen gather in its half-century-old pews for services led by lay people, praying for the arrival of a priest who can convince the archdiocese to keep the church open.
"We don't intend to leave it," said Joe Elliott, an 81-year-old retiree who takes turns with other parishioners occupying the church by sleeping on a cot in the back office of the building. "They want us out of here so they can take the church and dispose of it. But we're not leaving."
Elliott, who remembers having difficulty finding a seat for Sunday mass at St. James in the 1960s, is typical of the state's demographic, which is now growing slower and aging faster than the national average.
While Catholics remain the nation's second-biggest religious group with about 22 percent of the population, a figure roughly unchanged since 1965 thanks to an influx of Hispanics, many dioceses are struggling to find priests.
Of the nation's 18,479 parishes in 2008, 3,141 were without resident pastors, while the 480 priests ordained in 2008 is less than half the number of new priests in 1965.
Nowhere is this being felt more than in the Northeast.
"For years, the Northeast has been priest-rich compared to the other parts of the country. Now they are starting to feel it as well," said Chuck Zech, a professor at Villanova University who studies finances in the U.S. Catholic Church.
In 1950, 46 percent of all Catholics in the United States were in the Northeast. By 2007, that was down to 31 percent. Almost half of all Catholics are now in the South and West, compared to 25 percent in 1950.
"There are more Catholics in the country but they are not necessarily in places where the churches are -- a lot of them are in the Southwest and California and so on," said Zech.
The trend also has wider implications for the U.S. Catholic church, which has had its financial and demographic base in the Northeast for generations.
"Some of the rise in population is among groups who are historically low givers. They can't afford or don't see the need to support their church financially," Zech said.
And scholars point to subtle but significant changes in the voting patterns of Catholics, who make up roughly a quarter of the U.S. electorate. Hispanic Catholics, who tend to vote Democratic, are growing. White Catholics, who tend to favor Republicans, are on the decline.
"There is a shift that is taking place," said Greg Smith, research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Catholics have become a swing vote. In any particular election, they really could go in either direction."
Elliott, camped out at St. James Church near Boston, recognizes that the odds are against him and others trying to keep it open.
The state's highest court ruled in 2007 that the Archdiocese had a constitutional right to shutter the parish, while the parishioners have appealed to the Apostolic Signatura, a tribunal in the Vatican.
"We don't have the numbers but the group that is still here is tenacious in their faith," Elliott said.
Reporting by Jason Szep; Editing by Eddie Evans