Sunday, February 15, 2009

St. Stephen's, Minneapolis: Twelve Months Later

'We're taking on water,' and new priest knows he can't walk on it

Father Joseph Williams came "from the farm to the hood" less than a year ago, to a congregation in a spiritual crisis and a neighborhood riddled with poverty and crime. He is only 34, but as he sits in a low-ceilinged office in the basement of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, it seems like the weight of the 110-year-old structure, and the centuries-old institution itself, sit squarely on his shoulders.

When Williams arrived in April, there were 350 families at the church, maybe more. On a recent Sunday, during the only remaining mass in English, coughs echoed off the empty pews as a couple of dozen people mumbled through the service.

That's it, he said.

The rest have fled, or just given up.

Williams, under the direction of a new pope and new archbishop, has steered one of the country's most liberal churches in a more orthodox direction. No more services in the "egalitarian" school gym. No more laity saying mass or celebrating the eucharist. No more prayers to "our father and mother in heaven."

The collection plate is down 90 percent. This spring, the priest who not long ago led a congregation in an idyllic small town, will tell the charter school known for a peace-and-justice curriculum that it must go because the church needs more rent.

Williams -- smart, witty and likable -- talks about providence, his faith that God is directing this drama. But when asked if the congregation could continue if it did not grow, he frowns.

"No," he said. "We're taking on water."

• • •

Former St. Stephen's priest Ed Flahavan says that two tsunamis have hit the church, which towers over the Whittier and Phillips neighborhood a half-mile from downtown Minneapolis. The first was in 1968, bringing with it the flotsam of the era.

I lived across the street, was an altar boy and graduated from the Catholic grade school. My first job was cleaning up the basement, where homeless people crashed on floor mats.

I saw the first guitar mass, the start of the American Indian Movement and gay rights. We sang Bob Dylan songs instead of hymns. Except the answer, my friend, was living in all men.

In protest, the traditionalists handed out fliers, Defenders' Trumpet, saying things had gone crazy. I sometimes had to squeeze through picket lines to serve mass, as barriers to worship came down, or went up, depending on your view.

Eventually, the church stopped being the center of the neighborhood, which crumbled. A man was killed in my back yard. The fourplex where I grew up became a crack house after my parents fled to Staples, seeking a different kind of sanctuary.

• • •

The second tsunami hit last winter, exactly 40 years later.

Henry Bromelkamp was in the forefront of the new exodus, starting an offshoot called "The Spirit of St. Stephens" when the parish turned back to tradition.

Bromelkamp personally likes Williams, "but I think he thought what St. Stephen's did for the poor was charity," he said. "It's a demand for justice, not just for the poor, but for all of us. Hierarchy acts like the route to God is only through its hierarchy. That doesn't make us believe it."

A deeper anger

The new priest thought there was "no opposition between a shared liturgy and a radical passion for social services. Maybe I was naively optimistic to that end," Williams said. "I began to realize the anger with the institution was deeper than I thought. They didn't see that people were hurt by the liberties taken with the liturgy."

"Some people said I was hand-picked by the bishops to dismantle the church," he continued. "If I was, they didn't tell me about it."

Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is firm on that question: "Absolutely not."

While McGrath has seen lots of rifts inside churches, "I can't think of another situation like this. It's not a conservative or liberal issue, though that's part of it, it's a question of the veracity of the church."

"We knew we were drifting across the line," Flahavan said. "Some who left kept going. They left Rome."

I left the church, in both senses of the word, years ago. I followed the prophets that seemed to speak to me at the time, whether it was Sartre, Rand or Hunter S. Thompson. My own Church of One. Unlike those who recently left, however, I never expected the church to come with me.

"This is more than I bargained for," admits Williams, who again mentions providence.

He sees promise in the new influx of immigrants (Williams is fluent in Spanish) who can rejuvenate St. Stephen's as the Irish did decades ago: "Lovely people."

Archdiocese Cracks Down on St. Stephen's Parish; Mar 2, 2008

Amy Welborn's report on "the case of St. Stephen's", March 3

Father Z's report on "Dustup at St. Stephen's fisking of Nick Coleman's article in the Strib March 3

Reaction to the St. Stephen's Walkout; Mar 7, 2008

Pray for Father Williams, pray for the parishioners who stayed, pray for the Spanish-speaking new parishioners and certainly pray for those who left, mostly old Vietnam War and Poverty Protestors from the 60s and 70s, to make up own modern democratic religion, renting a hall a few blocks away.
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