Thursday, October 14, 2010

Twin Cities Catholics brace for change; Archdiocesan Plan coming Saturday

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"I think people will be surprised how open-minded the process was," [Father Peter] Laird said. "There will be big parishes and small parishes."

The Rev. Glen Jensen celebrated mass Thursday at St. Hedwig Catholic Church in northeast Minneapolis, an area full of Catholic churches.

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With growth on the metro edges and churches empty in the cities, Twin Cities Catholics prepare for word this weekend about closures, consolidations and more

The daily 6:45 a.m. mass drew about 30 people to the 1,000-seat sanctuary at Holy Cross Catholic Church. The Rev. Glen Jensen led the service amid marble columns and brightly lit frescoes of biblical scenes. A large, sculptured crucifix hovered above Jensen at the altar, and the paint on the walls looked as fresh as the flowers that surrounded him.

But for all the church's vibrancy, the number of masses in Holy Cross could be numbered. One of nine Catholic churches in a 23-block stretch of the University Avenue corridor in northeast Minneapolis, Holy Cross shares its priest with sister congregations. One of the churches no longer has even a visiting pastor.

Vestiges of an earlier wave of immigrants -- Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Irish -- who took pride in having their community places of worship, churches like Holy Cross are now the potential targets for a major reorganization of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese that is being driven by new changes to the face of Twin Cities Catholicism.

The reorganization, to be announced Saturday, is expected to close a number of the archdiocese's 213 church buildings.

Saturday is "when the bomb drops, as my priest says," said Paul Sellors, who belongs to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in St. Anthony but attends daily mass at Holy Cross. Like his pastor and most Catholics, Sellors expects fireworks when church officials roll out the biggest archdiocesan shake-up since World War II and perhaps ever.

The reorganization is an acknowledgment of significant changes in the 12-county metro area. That new face includes increasing numbers of Latinos, Vietnamese and Koreans, as well as a smattering of Hmong, African and Filipino worshipers. Thanks to those immigrants, the overall archdiocesan membership of roughly 800,000 is growing, but not always in the places that are home to the long-established churches. Churches in Woodbury, Eagan and Coon Rapids are thriving -- St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan reports 4,500 families, Epiphany in Coon Rapids over 5,000 families. In Woodbury, St. Ambrose Catholic Church boasts 3,400 families and bears the name of a disbanded parish that once served St. Paul's Italian East Side.

Meanwhile, attendance at some churches in older areas of the inner cities and first-ring suburbs is stagnating, or worse. The Rev. Joseph Johnson, rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul, said church officials are fond of saying that the average age of members at St. Ambrose of Woodbury is 7, while the average at the old St. Ambrose in St. Paul was closer to 70. A number of congregations may be merged. Anticipation and angst are high. Multiple church closures are a certainty.

"Our faith is not about buildings," said Archdiocese Vicar General Rev. Peter Laird, who co-chaired the Strategic Planning Task Force. "Our faith is about relationships."

Financially maintaining so many half-filled sanctuaries keeps the archdiocese from funding important ministries, such as feeding the poor or providing Catholic education, Laird explained. "Resources are finite. The gospel is about change. You shake things out to get better.

"This is the church's primary responsibility -- to respond to the times."

Financial challenges

Archdiocese officials hope to reduce costs by restructuring, communications director Dennis McGrath acknowledged. The latest available figures show that the recession reduced investment income from 2008 to 2009, more than offsetting a $1.3 million increase in parish giving. The net effect was a $500,000 decline in archdiocesan revenue, from $35.5 million in 2008 to $35 million in 2009.

Nevertheless, McGrath said the archdiocese did not set specific savings targets in the restructuring. Nor, he said, was budget cutting "one of the prime goals."

That reassurance brings little comfort in areas where churches are likely to close.

"Everyone is concerned in a neighborhood with so many churches that aren't as big as they used to be," said Jensen, a 51-year-old cleric who ministers to three churches whose congregations have dwindled to the point where they can't sustain their own priests. "It's always hard to face the reality."

Past and present in Northeast

Northeast Minneapolis, where several Catholic churches lie within a football field's length of one another, provides a snapshot of the way things were and the way they are.

The ethnic communities that built the individual Catholic churches there are in many cases alive more in memory than in fact, their ranks depleted by assimilation and movement to the suburbs. Jensen has spent months trying to prepare those who remain for what may come. He encourages his parishioners to "work together" to find a way to move forward. Like the folks in the pews, Jensen has no idea which churches will close. Priests will get a heads-up Friday, ahead of the announcement, according to an archdiocesan plan. In Jensen's case, he will scramble to attend a portion of six weekend masses at three churches to explain what's happening.

Archdiocesan officials will not say how many churches will close. The announcement will include no Catholic school closures. The parish restructuring plan is set to become public at 4 p.m. Saturday, before the start of the first Sunday vigil masses. Sixteen months in development, the restructuring will take months to implement.

Closing churches is a delicate but necessary task to make the best use of money and people, Laird emphasized. While the number of worshipers in the archdiocese has grown to an all-time high, the number of active priests -- around 300 -- is the same as 30 years ago. And despite overall growth, many parishes are shrinking. Today, roughly 25 percent of the archdiocese's churches share priests.

'A sign of the times'

Tom Tanner, who attends Sunday mass at Holy Family Catholic in St. Louis Park and weekday mass at Holy Cross, lived through church closures in River Falls, Wis. "You hate to see it," Tanner said. "But it's a sign of the times."


Other signs include mass offered in Spanish at places like Assumption Catholic Church in Richfield. There, a bilingual priest, the Rev. Robert Murphy, preaches to a congregation that has become increasingly Latino. Indeed, Murphy's name is the only non-Hispanic one among the staff listed on the church's website. Twenty-three parishes in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese now offer mass in Spanish. Twenty years ago, two did. The number of Latino members listed on parish roles is almost certainly an undercount, said Johnson, the cathedral rector, who specializes in immigrant ministry. "Latinos are not in the habit of registering."

The ranks of Vietnamese and Korean Catholics have also increased.

Although sadness and disappointment seem unavoidable, Laird said the archdiocese tried to stick to a set of principles that assure that people throughout the archdiocese have easy access to church sacraments. Efforts also focused on accommodating the "poor, marginalized and immigrant."

"I think people will be surprised how open-minded the process was," Laird said. "There will be big parishes and small parishes."

Whatever the changes, some Catholics plan to roll with them.

Tom Janas of Delano attends a church -- St. Peter's -- that shares a priest with another, St. Joseph's. "I understand some people will be upset," Janas said. "Our priest has told us this could be coming and hopes everyone understands why it is necessary.

"To me, the big priority is we're worshiping God. I don't care about the building." Star Tribune

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