Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Standard-Times: St. John the Baptist to close.

Last week, the Standard-Times carried the unfortunate news that New Bedford's St. John the Baptist Church, the oldest Portuguese parish in the United States, will soon close because its shrinking congregation can no longer afford the upkeep of the century-old church building. This news is sad but not unexpected: as I noted in the fall of 2010, the parishioners of St. John's have been working for some time to raise needed capital and to increase Mass attendance. In the end, it seems, the parish simply couldn't close the cap fast enough: a press release from the Diocese of Fall River states that St. John's raised less than half of the $750,000 sought in its capital campaign, while Mass attendance continued to fall even as the number of registered parishioners increased slightly. (Of course, there is another side to the story: a St. John's parishioner has written to the Standard-Times to assert that the Diocese set unrealistic fundraising goals for the capital campaign, making it harder for the parish to survive.)

What interests me most about this story isn't the financial angle, but rather what the decision to close St. John's says about the state of Roman Catholicism (and religion generally) in the area where I grew up. Consider these paragraphs from the Standard-Times report:
Ana DaRocha, 53, said her children were baptized at St. John the Baptist, where she has been a parishioner for about 30 years.

"Even though I don't go to Mass all that often, it's just that it's here," said DaRocha, whose home is adorned with tiled placards of saints. "And you know the people, and they know you."

St. John the Baptist's parishioner population has been dropping for more than a decade, according to the Diocese, which says that despite the parish's success increasing its total households by 52 since October 2009, average weekend Mass totals fell to 488 in November 2011. In 2000, that average was about 705, as indicated in a previous report by the Standard-Times.

[St John's pastor, Father John] Oliveira — who placed current membership at 1,000 households — described the demographic shifts at play as neighborhoods change and people move to the suburbs.

"It's also the issue that many Catholics do not participate regularly at Eucharist," Oliveira said. And "there has not been any significant emigration from Portugal in the past 20 years, and so as the second- and third- and fourth-generation acculturate and also move away from the center city, it weakens the parish."
The fact that average weekly Mass attendance at St. John's has fallen by over thirty percent in the last decade seems quite stunning, but these numbers are indicative of a wider decline in regular Mass attendance by Catholics as well as a drop in the number of people who identify as Catholics at all. Figures published by CARA in 2009 suggest that no more than twenty-one percent of Massachusetts Catholics attend Mass weekly; I don't have data for the Diocese of Fall River, but it has been estimated that only sixteen percent of Catholics in the neighboring Archdiocese of Boston are weekly Massgoers. Moreover, survey results published in 2009 indicate that the percentage of Massachusetts residents who self-identify as Catholic fell from fifty-four to thirty-nine percent between 1990 and 2008.

All of these figures suggest that the future of the Catholic Church in my corner of New England is certain to be dramatically different from the past or even the present. Other parishes are certain to close in the coming years, forcing Catholics to say goodbye to church buildings that were very often constructed by their own ancestors, structures that nourished the faith of generations and helped many to come to understand just what it means to Catholic. Where religious faith is concerned, place matters.

The closing of St. John's will surely be very difficult for the church's most dedicated parishioners, those who go to Mass every Sunday and perhaps also on weekdays. However, I suspect that the closing of the church will also be hard on people like Ana DaRocha, the woman who told the Standard-Times, "Even though I don't go to Mass all that often, it's just that it's here." I think those words sum up the attitude of many nominal or episodically-practicing Catholics, a group which includes a good number of the Catholics that I've known in my life; they may not attend Mass regularly, but they still feel a sense of attachment to their local parish and take comfort in the fact that "it's here." Even if they seldom or never darken the door of the parish church, many nominal Catholics still instinctively regard the Church as an objective reality - as an ever-present fact of life, as enduring as death and taxes.

Some may wish to fault nominal Catholics for not doing more to support their parishes; indeed, if non-practicing Catholics who took the survival of local parishes for granted actually began going to Mass regularly and offering other forms of support, those parishes would stand a much better chance of staying open. At the same time, though, it strikes me that the Church has less of a chance of drawing nominal Catholics back to regular practice when churches like St. John the Baptist are closed; once one loses the last tenuous link that a local parish provides ("my kids were baptized there," perhaps, or "that's where my parents got married"), what is really left to draw lapsed or indiferent Catholics back to the Church? AMDG.


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