On a winter Sunday last year—before the Omicron variant hit—our family arrived at Mass at St. Patrick Church in Providence, R.I., just prior to the procession, and I was a little worried. Would we find a seat? In the end, we did, but the pews were in fact very full. Latecomers ended up setting up folding chairs in designated spots, a standard practice when we run out of seats.
This, of course, is not a problem in every Catholic parish. But these days, it’s a nice problem to have.
In 1970, 55 percent of American Catholics attended Mass; by 2019, that number had dropped to a little over 20 percent. Many parishes have closed or merged, and many more will follow.
The pandemic seems only to have worsened the situation—although we will not have a clear accounting for some time—and left many parishes with new rows of empty seats. Even in our parish, the pews are emptier these days as the Covid-19 virus surges.
Still, our community has continued to thrive even in these challenging times. So, what is going on here at St. Patrick Church?
One might think that the first thing to draw people in would be a beautiful church building. But we do not have a beautiful church building. We do not have any church building at all, in fact, if by that one means a structure designed to be a church. Our history on that score is a story of loss. In 1843, a small community of enterprising Irish Catholics laid the cornerstone of what would become a towering Gothic Revival edifice, seating over 1,000 people and standing face-to-face with Rhode Island’s State House (or, from another vantage point, peering over its left shoulder).
For over 100 years, that building welcomed wave after wave of Irish immigrants. The parish established the first Catholic school in the state, a band of Sisters of Mercy arrived, and St. Patrick Church served as the kind of religious anchor at the heart of the city that is now rare.
In the late 1970s, though, everything changed. Parishioners were already moving out of the city in significant numbers when a devastating discovery was made. The foundation of that gorgeous church was unsound. The estimated costs made repair impossible, so a terrible and necessary decision was made: The church building was demolished.
Church furnishings were scavenged or sold. The community took what they could—a few stained glass windows, a wooden set of the Stations of the Cross—and limped a few blocks to the west, where the parish school was housed in a substantial, two-story brick building. There, the school auditorium was requisitioned and consecrated, and the parish set up its life in an unexpected architectural exile. It is in that one-time school auditorium that we meet to this day.
One might also think that another draw to our parish would be a clear and unified version of a “parish identity.” But we do not have that either. Our identity is neither traditionalist nor progressive; we are neither liberal nor conservative. We come from many different geographic places. On any given Sunday, you can find a group of young men in jeans and sweatshirts in one pew and a young mother in her chapel veil in another. You can find some parishioners arriving, rosary in hand, to pray before the service, while a guitar is being tuned up front. I have a strong suspicion that if you turned to politics, you would find our voting patterns similarly varied and eclectic.
Socioeconomic status and race do not help in finding a label for us, either. The largest portion of the parish is made up of workers, as it always has been, raising families and living from one paycheck to the next. But many other kinds of people are mixed in: professionals and professors; a significant percentage of people who work in social services; teachers and public servants. There are a few long-established folks with more money, and a few, at the other end of the spectrum, living without secure housing or food.
What is it that draws so many people to its pews week after week?
Racially and culturally, we are a mix. There are still a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those original Irish Catholics. Other white folks, like myself, have drifted in. The majority, though, are a mix of Black and brown people, including heritages that are Cape Verdean, Haitian, Colombian and Bolivian, along with many others. We are at a tipping point on language: About half our community speaks Spanish as their first language, while English, Creole and other languages are among the mother tongues of the rest.
Given all this, you might well ask: What does hold this parish together? And what is it that draws so many people to its pews week after week? In the decade or so that I have been part of this community, some crucial characteristics have become increasingly clear to me.
First of all, worship lies at the center of our life. Our parish has what could be called a lively worship style. Contemporary songs are sometimes sung; drums are played; liturgical responses from the congregation are spoken with energy. Characteristics of more traditional worship are present, too, though. Liturgies are celebrated with reverence, and rubrics are followed with care. Latin is regularly included, and the liturgical life beyond the Mass includes all-night rosary vigils and an adoration chapel that is always open. In the end, one thing seems clear to me: It is not a particular style that the people are most in love with. It is God.
In these fussy and fractious times, it is easy to forget this: We come to Mass to worship God. With our words and with our bodies, we join together to say that God is God; that, though we are broken by sin, here we find true medicine for our wounds. We come to offer our lives on the altar, to join them to the one true sacrifice that reconciles all things. We come to be nourished and remade for all that lies ahead.
In our parish, this love for God is palpable, and so, too, is a second element: love for one another. Through interactions both inside and outside the church building, real friendships are the norm. I know that I can show up and be welcomed as if I were coming home. One beautiful, elderly Cape Verdean woman—the closest thing we have to a single matriarch at the head of the parish—always pulls me close and says without apology, “I love you.” I believe her. As I have been incorporated into this community, I have also been given invaluable opportunities to love: to pray or to offer counsel or just to show up at someone’s front door with a dinner when it is needed most.
Our parish puts itself at the service of our neighborhood and our city.
We do everything we can to welcome others in as well. If you come to Mass, you will be greeted warmly. We want to know your name. And we try to meet you where you are. American Sign Language interpreters are available at Mass every Sunday. We offer catechesis tailored to a continuum of individual needs, and we have hosted a summer program especially for people with disabilities. In the midst of a pandemic and all the divisions it has engendered, we have done everything we can to bear with one another and to be generous and patient.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this love also overflows. The final defining mark of this parish is that both as a community and as individual members, our parish puts itself at the service of our neighborhood and our city. We have a food bank and a meal kitchen; a food-truck ministry heads to neighborhoods where it is needed most. Our parish high school welcomes all students, whatever their ability to pay, and assists any who are missing math or English skills so that everyone can finish well. Individual members fan out to innumerable ministries of their own, including teaching and outreach to the homeless. One directs a senior center. One is a state senator.
At the heart of all this activity is our pastor. He has many traits that nourish our community: He is humble and hardworking; he works collaboratively and generously with lay leaders; he is open and curious in asking where the Spirit is leading us. In the end, though, the trait that shapes him is deeply connected to the traits I have already described: He has a single-minded focus on our central vocation, that of living together in the love of Christ and sharing that love with others. Particular programs and initiatives come and go. What is essential is that we remember and live into that central truth.
It is important to say that our parish is, of course, not perfect. We lose focus. We get impatient with one another and ourselves. Money is always short. But love is a powerful thing. It covers a multitude of sins, and it gives us energy and hope, even in these difficult days.
It would be easy in a parish like ours to focus on what we are missing or the challenges we face. We could spend our time pining for that beautiful Gothic church that once was ours. But that is not our task. We can only be here, now, drawn to the altar and then sent back out again, in a rhythm that gives us life. And even if the details and the history were very different, what else could we want?
Holly Taylor Coolman is an assistant professor of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island.
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