LOGAN PARK — The presence of a journalist at a recent Sunday Mass at Holy Cross Catholic Church had a few parishioners on edge. There were suspicious stares. Terse greetings of “Can I help you?”
But if one or two churchgoers were a little less than friendly, they had their reasons. They’d been burned before.
“To blast our church in the paper on Saturday and to be erroneous — we were just so upset,” explained a parishioner named Kathy, who grew up in Logan Park and had both her baptism and her First Communion at Holy Cross.
On Oct. 16, news reports revealed that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would close 20 Catholic churches in the Twin Cities as part of the largest reorganization in the entity’s 160-year history. And Holy Cross, the papers said, was on the chopping block.
Along with two other churches in the neighborhood — St. Hedwig, at 129 29th Ave. NE, and St. Clement, at 911 24th Ave. NE — Holy Cross was expected to merge with St. Anthony of Padua, the oldest Catholic parish in the city, headquartered at 813 Main St. NE.
At Northeast’s original Polish parish, where services are still offered in the native language and polka music occasionally accompanies the Mass, the alarm was immediate.
And, as it turns out, not entirely necessary: The papers had gotten it wrong.
“There is no intent to quote-unquote close a parish as historic and beautiful and substantial a part of Northeast as Holy Cross,” said Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
The Holy Cross pastor, Father Glen Jensen, echoed the correction at a Mass the same night the misleading news broke: “Holy Cross will not close!” were his first, angry words during that evening’s sermon. Jensen, who did not return phone calls requesting comment, also leads services at Clement, Hedwig and Padua.
The confusion, it seems, stemmed from the exact notion of what the word “merger” meant, exactly.
McGrath confirmed the consolidation with Padua but said, “Services will continue to be held at Holy Cross. Holy Cross will become part of St. Anthony of Padua, but the parish itself, the church itself, is going to stay open.”
St. Hedwig and St. Clement will likely close, he continued. But he emphasized that parish closings can take up to “two to three years.” The reorganization will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2012.
“Again, it’s likely to take a considerable amount of time,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of discussion to be had going forward.”
Explaining the archdiocese’s reason for the reorganization, McGrath cited too many churches in too small an area. It’s often said that in Northeast, there’s either a bar or a church on every corner, which is great for neighborhood charm. But not so great for an aging population of churchgoers who are dwindling in numbers.
“It’s almost like a football field over there, and you’ve got four churches,” McGrath said. “And you’ve got people that have moved out of the area. It’s an aging population in many respects. The demographics have shifted. It’s all of those reasons.”
At a recent Sunday Mass, about 200 parishioners filed into the pews. And many of them were young couples. More than a few mothers and fathers struggled to stifle the occasional screams of babies they had brought along. Toddlers milled about in the lobby.
But, said Kathy, the longtime parishioner, “When the young people get married, then they go out to the suburbs.”
The clarification that Holy Cross would not close assuaged the worst of worries. But the correction didn’t bring much relief. The details of the changes at Holy Cross remain murky. And the congregation still hopes to nip them in the bud.
After the Sunday Mass, a woman collected signatures for a letter the church intended to send to Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, asking him to reconsider the decision. Churches affected by the reorganization had until Oct. 27 to appeal.
In the hubbub over the original article, Holy Cross officials worried that some parishioners would protest by discontinuing their financial donations. A brief note in the Oct. 24 bulletin warned that although “often, the easiest and fastest way to express your dissatisfaction is to withhold your participation,” “withholding contributions […] will create financial problems for Holy Cross.”
Other questions remain, too — like what’s going to happen to the elementary school located on the Holy Cross campus. The Pope John Paul II Catholic School provides kindergarten-through-eighth-grade education for children of all Northeast Catholic parishes. And while most expect the archdiocese’s reorganization to result in some school closings, Holy Cross parishioners believe Pope John Paul II’s geographic reach will keep it safe. And that in turn might prevent any drastic changes at the church itself.
“They say it’s our ace in the hole,” said Kathy.
Asked about the schools, McGrath said that the archdiocese had hired an outside consulting firm from Notre Dame to help determine a strategy.
“They’re going to look at each school,” he said. “‘Sustainability’ is the word they keep using. If a school’s ‘sustainability’ or viability is open to serious question, then they’re going to be given a period of time to come up with a plan, a really viable plan with some teeth in it.”
McGrath added that no announcements would be made about school changes until the end of the school year.
Another question will be what to call the new church after the merger. Some have suggested that Holy Cross will simply take on Padua’s moniker. Some parishioners believed they would be allowed to suggest and vote on a new name.
Regardless of any name changes, though, Kathy said she’d continue to support the church.
“It will always be Holy Cross in my heart,” she said.