Monday, September 13, 2010

S-T: Parishioners fighting to save historic New Bedford church.

Regular readers may have noticed that I occasionally post links and commentary on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in my home region of Southeastern Massachusetts and in New England more generally. As a new entry in this category, here is a story from today's edition of the New Bedford Standard-Times on the efforts of a historic New Bedford parish to stay open in spite of financial difficulties and dwindling attendance:
The oldest Portuguese Roman Catholic parish in North America will be saved from extinction only if more people attend Mass on Sundays, and if they can raise enough money to replace the church's tattered roof.

Parishioners of St. John the Baptist Church on County Street have organized re-evangelization and capital campaign teams to meet benchmarks set by Bishop George W. Coleman, who will decide sometime next year if the historic church will stay open.

"It would be crushing to see that church close," said Timothy J. Lopes, a St. John's parishioner who is helping to organize the capital campaign to raise about $750,000 to replace the church roof.

Fred Langevis, a member of the evangelist committee, is trying to reinvigorate his congregation's spiritual life by showcasing the parish's 26 active ministries, and by inviting worshipers to attend small-group discussions on Catholic spirituality.

"I feel very strongly that we shouldn't let our tradition fade away because of what I see as misunderstandings of the viability of the parish," he said.

Years of declining Mass attendance combined with needed structural repairs that went neglected and ill-managed finances resulted in St. John the Baptist, which was established in 1871 to minister to Portuguese immigrants, to reach the brink of foreclosure.

. . .

Langevis' main charge is to attract more registered parishioners and increase Mass attendance, which slipped to an average of 467 total worshipers for all four weekend Masses last year — a decline from about 705 in 2000.

Langevis, 60, who married his wife 40 years ago at St. John's, in June helped organize a ministry fair, which was well-received and resulted in 56 people signing up for 19 ministries. Also, 13 people joined the parish.

"When you have 26 active ministries, that's a viable parish from a spiritual standpoint," said Langevis, whose team is also organizing a program called Awakening Faith, which invites parishioners to meet in small discussion groups for six weeks.

"We talk about different topics of spirituality. We try to get them to open up about the challenges they face and how we can get the church to be more welcoming to them," Langevis said.

Parishioners say they have seen more people attending Mass on Sundays.

"We are seeing new and younger faces in the church," Lopes said.

However, the main factor to turning St. John's around will be money, parishioners admit.
To read the rest of the article, click here. My sympathy is with the parishioners at St. John's as they fight to revitalize their parish and to improve its fiscal health, and I wish them well in their efforts. That being said, I find it somewhat regrettable that the Standard-Times article places greater emphasis on parish finances than it does on the task of re-evangelization. In the short term, it seems to be true that money will be the "main factor" in determining whether or not the church stays open; the bill for capital improvements to the church will ultimately reach $1.7 million, so parish fundraisers have their work cut out for them. Even so, I wonder where the parish will find itself in a few years if it manages to raise enough funds to stave off closing but fails to replenish its empty pews.

In principle, I believe that there is a cultural as well as a spiritual value in keeping old churches open. This value ought to be particularly apparent in the case of a church like St. John's, the oldest Portuguese national parish in North America. To rebut an anticipated objection, I should make it clear that I do not subscribe to the view that 'ethnic' Catholic parishes in the United States were intended merely as a stopgap to be phased out as their parishioners assimilated into a culturally uniform 'American' Church. On the contrary, I believe that ethnic parishes should be allowed to survive as a bulwark against the myopia of the 'melting pot' and as a reminder that the Gospel has taken root in distinctive ways in particular cultures. Given the practical challenges that many ethnic parishes face, their special identity and continuing importance must be defended in the strongest possible terms if they are to survive.

Though fundraising is important for financially-troubled parishes, I would humbly suggest that attracting and retaining new and younger members is the greatest challenge facing faith communities like St. John's. The parish leaders quoted by the Standard-Times seem to be serious about reinvigorating the spiritual life of the community, though the article gives the impression that their efforts are primarily focused on getting current parishioners to become more active in parish activities. As commendable as these efforts are, it is no less important for parishes like St. John's to welcome newcomers who may not have a historic connection to the church.

For various reasons, long-established ethnic parishes can have a hard time refilling empty pews when their traditional membership base begins to decline or disperse. Basically stable parish communities with a strong ethnic identity often don't know quite what to do with newcomers, who in turn can be put off by the appearance of exclusivity and what can sometimes seem like a frosty or reluctant welcome. As a native of the area, I can also say that parishes in Southeastern Massachusetts aren't used to thinking much about these issues - until fairly recently, they never really had to. Now that these issues can no longer be avoided, my earnest hope and fervent prayer is that St. John's and similar parishes are able to meet the urgent challenges that confront them. AMDG.


At 9/14/2010 9:30 AM, Blogger Steve said...

These are always sad stories to read. I think the largest difficulty that traditional ethnic urban parishes face is that, in most cases, the people they seek to serve no longer live in the immediate community. As such, outreach to new members can be really difficult.

When the Diocese of Springfield underwent its consolidation process over the past few years, a dozen or so of the closed parishes were national parishes, many of which I was able to visit before being closed. It was profoundly sad to see these beautiful buildings with such rich histories shuttered, but was clear that many were surviving merely as historical curiosities rather than vibrant, active parishes.

I really hope SJTB can turn things around before it gets to that point, but I have to wonder what these parishes offer to younger Catholic families who, in most cases, have only a modest attachment to their families' original ethnic backgrounds.

I really think that the hardest task the people of SJTB will face is articulating their message in such a way that convinces young Catholics to drive that extra half hour on Sunday.

At 9/14/2010 5:30 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Strange as it may sound, I actually wouldn't mind if some of these parishes survived merely as "historical curiosities" with few active parishioners - in an absolute sense, I'd rather see these parishes stay open under any circumstances. In practice, though, keeping old parishes open as quasi-museums is difficult without the support of a stable group of active parishioners.

I think we're in agreement on the key issue - parishes like St. John's need to be able to articulate a distinctive message in order to attract young Catholics, especially if they expect prospective parishioners to come in from outside the neighborhood where the parish is located. Doing that successfully requires a lot of creativity and initiative, and my fear is that a lot of parishes in this situation don't realize this until it's too late.

I've noticed that some urban parishes (including a few ethnic ones) have managed to revitalize through a kind of spiritual niche marketing. St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford offers a plausible local example of this - they have a huge church building with a beautiful interior, which is seldom full but nonetheless seems to be growing again thanks to a dynamic young pastor, a focus on good liturgy, preaching and catechesis, and a host of parish activities targeted at young families. (They also have a good website, which can only help attract members of our generation.)

I'm invovled in a parish in Philadelphia that fits the description in your first paragraph - a traditional ethnic community, nearly all of whose parishioners now live outside the neighborhood, with many driving long distances to come to church. In a sense, the people who still come have made an exceptional commitment to the church, since they now have to commute there. The realities of geography also have an impact on the extra-liturgical life of the parish: most meetings and social events are held on weekends to better accommodate parishioners' schedules, and very little takes place during the week.

Despite the challenges we face, my current parish is also dedicated to outreach. The parishioners know that their survival as a community depends on their ability to attract new members, and they have had some success in outreach. Of course, there is more that we could be doing, but what I have seen and experienced as one of the newcomers gives me hope.

In the case of St. John's, the Standard-Times article makes me wonder whether they're casting a wide enough net. As I wrote in my post, they seem to be more focused on getting current parishioners more involved in parish activities than in trying to attract more new members. Unlike St. Anthony's, they have yet to establish a parish website - a small step, perhaps, but one with considerable symbolic importance.

Dealing with the ethnic question is also a challenge. As you say, a lot of younger Catholics don't have as strong a sense of ethnic identity as preceding generations. At the same time, I think that many ethnic parishes can survive only if they're able to draw a broader base of parishioners that is not limited to members of the founding group. This forces ethnic parishes to walk a diplomatic tightrope: how to get the descendants of the founders to continue to care about their heritage while also attracting new members who may not share the same ethnic background?

In any event, I hope and pray that St. John's is able to turn things around. Whether or not they do, these issues are going to remain with us.

At 7/18/2012 7:36 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I am a parishioner of SJTB church and have been for 38 yrs. It is not only my church but a home we are a family. My children ages 14 and 12 are very active in our church's youth group we have 16 members and growing. SJTB offers young Catholic families a place to belong a place where their children can feel good about helping others. A lot of times it's hard to get today's youth involved with anything let alone religion but our young parishioners look forward to helping others and carrying on their families traditions. SJTB Church celebrates this year 141 and I hope and pray that we remain open for another 141 years, so that the next generation can carry own.

At 7/19/2012 4:01 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment - I'm praying for you and the whole community at SJTB, and I share your hopes for the future. God bless,

Joe K sj


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