A cluster of church-goers carefully climb the University Avenue steps to Holy Cross, as most of the group are both wobbly and deliberate on their feet.
Inside, three young people stepwise in height so we assume they’re family, stand together in a sea of gray and white heads. There are a few babes in arms. But if the church were working the way it is supposed to, there would be about equal numbers of 20 and 30-somethings, as elders, their pastor said.
“Good evening, my brothers and sisters. You’ve already read the Star Tribune…in the rush to get a scoop, there’s a tiny little error in understanding what mergers are about.” The Rev. Glen Jenson, pastor, addressed the group, the first of three services he would attend Saturday Oct. 16, with a basic message he would also repeat at Sunday services here and at his other churches, Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Hedwig. The church merging with these three is Saint Clement.
Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, John C. Nienstedt, signed the cover letter in a17-page summary document and letters to parishioners detailing the geographic and ethnic populations expected to merge effective January 1, 2012, and stating that there would be 10 days from Oct. 17 to appeal the decision. No comment was made on whether to close Catholic schools.
“They’re going to make the parishioners make the decision about what to close,” said a parishioner from Saint Hedwig in a group of former Northeast residents who didn’t want to give their names. Or, it’s a challenge to work to keep them open, said another, pointing out that when Fr. Ted Guminga came, they would have closed the church but he built up the following. “This is the only one that’s in the black. This one is doing very well.”
Jenson told the Holy Cross gathering that the claim that three Northeast Catholic churches were closing at the direction of the Archdiocese, was premature, and that they’d all be going to Saint Anthony of Padua, not logical, “they can only seat 400 anyway.” He said he didn’t expect a detailed understanding of canon (church) law, but a “receiving parish” (Saint Anthony of Padua) is simply the oldest. There’s also a distinction between a Territorial church and a National church.
The fact that attendance numbers have been dwindling throughout the Catholic faith has necessitated “a fight to reclaim our own youth from an invasive secular culture,” Jenson said.
There are challenges in rural areas where fewer people overall are living. “The church has been forced to look at herself,” and it was decided to do it “systemwide.”
Jenson said that increasing evangelization, adult education, youth ministry and young adult ministry would require a school, which Holy Cross has, so he assured the parishioners their building and school would be the most likely to remain open. There will likely be a new name for the combined parish, determined by the parishioners and taken to the Archbishop for approval. But the buildings will keep their names, ABC parish, Holy Cross campus, for example. All the planning for the future will take place in the next 14 and a half months, he said.
“In the end Jesus wants to save us all…” so why not try something new? Jenson said. “Somehow, it will all work. God-it’s his church-he will see that what (we) need is here. So this is not a funeral notice. Got it?” Some audible “Got it”s, then applause, met the challenge.
The prayers murmured by those who know exactly what to say and when to say it wash over as if in a foreign language. Among the petitions, there’s an entreaty to “Lord hear our prayer” for the people who elect government officials, and another for more people to seek the priesthood. The service is dedicated to a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary.
The view of soaring intricately detailed ceilings and ornate gold leaf atop dark marble columns interspersed with light stone block columns make an impression of timelessness as participants move toward communion. Even though the pews are far from full, there’s quite a bit of activity. Parishioners at the other churches say they can’t imagine closing such an impressive facility.
Down the road at Saint Anthony of Padua, the interior is more sparse and intimate, newer even though the church is longer established, the numbers are proportionately fewer at the 5:30 Saturday service. When Rev. Jenson arrives, he gives basically the same message as at Holy Cross, tailored to Saint Anthony. “We will not be getting all the [historical files], they wouldn’t fit,” he said, “We built churches, homes for priests, and schools,” not office buildings, so it’s really not certain where the church secretaries will end up, but “all that stuff” will get figured out.
Many of the present Catholic priests are beyond retirement age. There are 80-plus- year-olds. “Do we clip a mass here and there so the guys who are left can handle it? Do pray for the health of your aging priests.” Jenson said the hope is by pooling together the church will be “repositioning to try, at least, to go get them [the two-thirds of Catholics who don’t attend church]. Isn’t that a good thing?”
The “yes” response took a little while to say.
That the church leaders and parishioners, would get a say in how it will all shake out, Jenson said, “is a huge gift from the Archbishop. St. Anthony of Padua…”
“Pray for us!” the parishioners responded in unison.
At Church of Saint Clement, Father Earl Simonson began the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Oct. 17 service with a personal note on rumors about his own health, which is fine. He’ll have a biopsy or surgery for a possible skin cancer Tuesday. About the church’s health, he referred to the financial statement included in the week’s bulletin showing a $21,873.69 loss in the fiscal year 2010 and about 10 times that in monetary assets to the good.
“We’ll go along until one of the churches can’t.” He mentioned two other pastors and himself all being in their 80s and said if a change came at Saint Clement it would “either be with my death, or retirement.”
He asked that they pray for more men to answer the call to be a priest. “Someday you’ll get someone younger and cuter. Thirty-two years ago I was cute, though not so young.”
After the service, Fr. Simonson greeted parishioners with “there’s nothing yet. We’re doing this to stay strong.” Parishioners in the parking lot said they drive past other close-by churches because they like Father Simonson, and they might choose to go to a more convenient church rather than another in the new cluster if he’s not there.
Two other Northeast parishes have been told to cluster: The Church of All Saints and Saint Boniface Catholic Church. A letter from All Saints’ parish business administrator Ray Mlinar said the “parishes in a cluster arrangement retain their parish status and basic organizational structure, and clustering does not necessarily lead to merger.”
At Saint Boniface, Father John Brandes delighted in seeing the “army” of people who came to see a baby baptized. Throughout the sanctuary, parishioners and visitors of all ages and diverse ethnic backgrounds enjoyed flute and piano accompaniment to the proceedings, though the pews were not crowded. Of the clustering, Brandes said, “In short, it means two will be sharing a pastor in the near future. Twenty-five percent of the parishes in the Archdiocese have been clustered for a long time.”
“We heard a rumor that all nationality churches would be put in with Saint Anthony. Saint Clement was, ours was not. Yay. Clap. We’ve had celebrations over the years. It’s why we’re here. We have to feel for those who are [moving]. If we each had three weekend liturgies, that would be six [preparations] and that would be hard on a young priest,” said Brandes, one of the over-80 crowd. “Young priests spend a lot more energy than us old timers. It’s not as hard on us.”
Aside from these, Catholic churches in Northeast and Columbia Heights will see no structural change. Saint Austin and Saint Bridget in North Minneapolis will merge. More information at www.archspm.org.