Twin Cities Catholics to Close 21 Churches

By Patrick Condon
West Central Tribune
October 17, 2010

As a devoted Catholic of Hmong descent, Naokao Yang says he and other Hmong residents of the Twin Cities always appreciated having a church that they could call their own.

But on Saturday, Yang and fellow parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul learned it is on a list of 21 Catholic churches around the Twin Cities metro area that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis intend to close.

The move comes amid a drop in the number of priests, a decline in church attendance and an aging Catholic population that has migrated in large numbers to the suburbs.

St. Vincent de Paul, nestled in a quiet residential part of St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, is only about a mile from the much larger Cathedral of St. Paul, with which it shares a pastor. Word of its likely closure had members of the small congregation with one Hmong-language Mass per weekend worried, Yang said Saturday.

"You can go anywhere to worship," said Yang, who emigrated to Minnesota from Laos in 1976. "But if you can be more centralized, that is fruitful to a group that shares a common background. People feel at home."

Besides the 21 churches on the list to close, all of which will be merged with nearby congregations and given new names, dozens more will be formed into "clusters" of two or more congregations that share priests and some staff and services.

Five churches will close in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and their congregations will be absorbed by others. Churches are also slated to close in St. Louis Park, South St. Paul, New Prague, Hugo and several smaller communities.

"I don't think anyone can respond with anything but sadness," said DeAnn Croatt, a parish council member at St. Benedict in rural New Prague, which will have its congregation folded into St. Wenceslaus inside New Prague's city limits.

Croatt and her husband have attended St. Benedict since 1978. She said parishioners at the church that dates to the 19th Century expected to hear details of the closure at Saturday night Mass. She said it was too early to speculate whether parishioners might pursue an appeals process established by the archdiocese.

St. Benedict has been without a pastor since its elderly priest died last January, Croatt said. It also has already been sharing resources with other Catholic churches in the area.

In the 1950s, about 75 percent of Catholics attended church most weekends. Today, the national average is closer to 30 percent. The number of new priests has shrunk as well, and while archdiocesan officials say their recruitment numbers have stabilized in recent years, they still expect the archdiocese to have 19 fewer priests in 2020 than it does now.

In one small area of northeast Minneapolis, three churches will be closed with their congregations to be absorbed by a fourth church. Three of those churches already share a lead pastor, the Rev. Glen Jenson, who made the rounds Saturday night to notify parishioners.

Jenson tried to reassure parishioners at Church of the Holy Cross, a traditionally Polish congregation that still has one weekly Mass in Polish, that the archdiocese's decision didn't necessarily mean the church building would be closed down. Such decisions will be made in the coming months among members of the merging parishes, he said.

"It's not a funeral notice, got it?" Jenson told the congregation.

Archdiocesan officials said it would be January at the earliest before any churches would actually close, and possibly later. Officials said some of the 98 Catholic grade schools in the archdiocese could be closed, too, but those decisions will be left to parish councils and won't be made until the end of the current school year.

Joan Turpin, 72, was baptized at Holy Cross. Four generations of her family have had weddings there, and she, her parents and her sons all attended school there. While Jenson's pep talk left her more reassured than she had been, she said it's hard to imagine going to Mass anywhere else.

"I walk into this church," Turpin said. "And I feel like I'm home."

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