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St. Mary's Church in Indian River is one of the few that have closed. ((CBC))

Restructuring Roman Catholic churches on P.E.I. will likely take years, the new bishop of Charlottetown says, and fewer churches than first expected will close.

Bishop Richard Grecco told CBC News on Tuesday the tough decisions will be shared by local priests and the diocese.

Three years ago, the Charlottetown diocese announced the number of parishes on the Island would be cut from more than 50 to just 17, due to dwindling numbers of attendees and a shortage of priests. But so far only four churches have been closed.

Grecco said there is no longer a final total of churches that could close.

Since taking office three months ago, Grecco has seen a shift in dealing with the troubles faced by the church. Many parishes have formed clusters run by one priest, with the same council, and joint services.

Grecco said the priests in charge of those clusters will decide which churches should close, while working with the diocese.

"They may come to the conclusion themselves, 'We can't sustain three [churches] anymore. It isn't going to work,'" he said.

Workload fears

Grecco said while there has been progress in restructuring, things need to move more quickly in the western part of the Island.

Grecco is concerned that priests could become burnt out with the increased workload from running more than one church, but so far none have complained. And he wants everyone to remember that a church building is just that.

"The building is important, but the building serves the community, not the other way around," he said.

Grecco said he has no idea how long this restructuring process will take, but he said in the end fewer churches will not mean a drop in Catholic faith.