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.

7 comments:

Margaret said...

Thanks for posting this. The problem isn't left or right, orthodox or "progressive." I live in the city and my nearest parish would probably be St. Anne's which was languishing pretty much for the same demographic reasons and didn't have a left wing cult installed to artificially gin up the numbers. Whittier and Phillips are now worse neighborhoods than Jordan (where St. Anne's is), if you look at the crime stats, so it's unlike to attract people from far and wide.

St. Annes was saved the way that this parish will be, by encouraging a different kind of self-selection. (St. Anne's is now a predominantly Vietnamese Catholic Parish.) The article focuses on the mostly empty English mass but the pictures put pay to that lie, they have a Spanish speaking congregation. Unfortunately for the collection plate, they are poor and aren't in the habit of tithing. (It's not simply a matter of being poor--I've lived in the 3rd world and you would be surprised to see the collection plates of some evangelical churches in the poorest slums. It's just a different attitude about what it means to be a member of a church).

This story was written the minute the cult got kicked to the curb. A Return to tradition in South Minneapolis! Heresy! And Fr. Williams didn't come "from the farm to the hood" exactly. As young as he is, he's had urban assignments. I am pretty sure he was an assistant at the Cathedral when I was a member of that Parish about 6 or 7 years ago.

And this charity vs. social justice thing REALLY needs to get sorted out. "Social Justice" the way that it's constructed by many on the left is just an argument for more government sponsored welfare and regulation dressed up in religious language. By the end of her life even Dorothy Day the patron saint of the left realized that the war on poverty was just a disaster that harmed the poor. She understood that the missing ingredient was love. Caritas. imagine that. You don't get Caritas out of a social worker, a bureaucrat or a welfare check.

Ray from MN said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and valuable post, Margaret.

Don't think that the "progressives" believe that everything starts with Vatican II.

Why just last week, one of them cited Pope Leo XIII and his "social justice" encyclicals around 1900 as the primary justification for progressive ministries.

Of course there was no mention of the fact that there weren't 40,000 publicly acknowledged baby killings a year in those days.

Probably a majority of "progressives" would want women to have a "choice" when it comes to abortion.

But they would deny that choice when it comes to liturgy and prayer. Only they have the answer.

Ron from St. Paul said...

Nice post. I was baptized at St. Stephen,s some 60 years ago in what was then a Scandinavian neighborhood near the Art Institute and St. Marys Hospital. From what I hear the priests of that time were very devout. One even went on to become a Bishop, but I do not recall his name. Things have sure changed.

As a side note I might add that "Social Justice" seems to be an urban phenomenon because in rural churches it is almost never mentioned.

The Ironic Catholic said...

But Ray, Leo XIII DID have a seriously progressive (as in culture-engaging, forward thinking) encyclical in Rerum Novarum, and I don't know ANYONE who argues otherwise. There's a whole modern tradition of Catholic social justice that has built, starting with that encyclical, which John Paul II championed.

I think there is a lot more than this going on here. It's about a culture of fear in some more "liberal" congregations--the Church is out to get them! When the attitude of the chancery is more likely, we don't want to LOSE you by continuing to go down this track too far.

I'm sad for the situation, since I know some people from my years in St Paul who attended and loved St Stephen's. I suppose they are out, hopefully to another Catholic parish with less drama. My brother in law seems to be good friends with their current pastor, too, and I trust that he is a good man. But I expect the other commenter who said this is about inner city declining parishes may be right--the future of St Stephen's lies in the hispanic immigrant community. And in serving some of the most marginalized people in the US, St Stephen's would continue to truly promulgate the best of "the spirit of St Stephen's."

Ray from MN said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret said...

The Church has struggled with where it should fit between communism and capitalism for a millennium or 100 years if you are just counting Marxist style communism and the social encyclicals that were a direct response to it. The problem is that nobody has come up with a "third way" which is not the worst of both worlds. If you leave aside the Nazis, fascism along the lines of Franco or Mussolini was a of 3rd way movement. The Spanish Falangists were expressly Catholic in their identity. At least until now, most people in this country have found that kind of political ideology unattractive. Michael Novak has written about the compatibility of Free Markets and Catholicism. Basically in order to have free markets you need moral underpinnings that keep people in check and go further than laws and regulations can. That impell people to do good works without being forced to hand over their money. Without them, capitalism goes off the rails. Like we are seeing now.

Ray from MN said...

I.C.But Ray, Leo XIII DID have a seriously progressive (as in culture-engaging, forward thinking) encyclical in Rerum Novarum, and I don't know ANYONE who argues otherwise. There's a whole modern tradition of Catholic social justice that has built, starting with that encyclical, which John Paul II championed.

R.M. There is no doubt that there is a long and valid history of the Church’s forward thinking social justice ministry, established by Leo XIII. I doubt that any conservative objects to that. OK, I suppose that some don’t like it.

What is objectionable is that some “social justice” people, are pretty much “pro-choice”, feeling that the Democratic platform with respect to social welfare issues is every bit as or may be more important than the abortion issue where 40,000 die each year.

Why can’t we have both issues be important?



I.C.I think there is a lot more than this going on here. It's about a culture of fear in some more "liberal" congregations--the Church is out to get them! When the attitude of the chancery is more likely, we don't want to LOSE you by continuing to go down this track too far.

R.M. I think you have it down pretty accurately. The Church is terrified of schism. And those parishioners, who may have had the best social justice ministry in the Archdiocese, were fearful that the chancery would destroy it.

The biggest problem is that the chancery let it go too long. The parishioners got used to having their own way. I attended Mass there about two years ago when the “Sacramental Minister” at the time, an ordained priest, was nothing but a figurehead and a woman pretty much stood beside him during the Mass as he said the prayers of consecration and she said them too, holding the chalice while he had the Host (along with the entire congregation). Among other things.

I.C.I'm sad for the situation, since I know some people from my years in St Paul who attended and loved St Stephen's. I suppose they are out, hopefully to another Catholic parish with less drama.

R.M. Last April the progressives had a formal “march” from St. Stephen’s to some building on Park Avenue, a few blocks away, where they rented or borrowed space to have their own schismatic services. To my knowledge, none have gone to other parishes. Although I suppose some have gone to St. Joan’s, St. Francis Cabrini, St. Edward’s, or some of the other more “progressive” parishes in the archdiocese.

I.C. My brother in law seems to be good friends with their current pastor, too, and I trust that he is a good man.

R.M. Father Williams, whose brother is also a priest someplace in the archdiocese, is a very good guy. He is originally from the Stillwater area. Whether or not he was given specific instructions when he was sent there, I don’t know. The chancery seems to be denying it. I find that hard to believe. They knew that the parish was in bad shape. I had sent them a couple of reports on it and they sent their own observer to write a formal report three years ago.

Archbishop Flynn hated confrontation. I suppose that is one reason why nothing had been done about it. It was only right before Abp. Nienstedt took over, that the chancery assigned Fr. Williams to St. Stephen’s.

I.C.But I expect the other commenter who said this is about inner city declining parishes may be right--the future of St Stephen's lies in the hispanic immigrant community. And in serving some of the most marginalized people in the US, St Stephen's would continue to truly promulgate the best of "the spirit of St Stephen's."

R.M. There are a lot of poor people in the immediate neighborhood. But the Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Museum, downtown, the Kenwood/Mt. Curve upscale neighborhood and the Uptown “yuppie area are not that far away. But the church structure is over 100 years old.

I would agree that the “Spanish” solution is the logical immediate step. Many of them are probably not going to Church or are attending protestant services. There is a parish to St. Stephen’s immediate East in Minneapolis, Holy Rosary, staffed by a Hispanic Dominican priest and a Spanish speaking nun. http://www.op.org/holyrosary/

Probably half and half, Spanish & English speaking. Is there need for two Spanish parishes there?

Thanks for your feedback, I.C.