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An Inner-City Catholic Church: Fighting for Relevance and Survival

by David Gray, June 12, 2014

Saint Dominic's Catholic Church Columbus Ohio

Last year around this time I highlighted Saint Dominic’s Parish in Youngstown, Ohio, and how they were bringing the Gospel to the Black American community through programs for neighborhood children, by petitioning the local government to tear down blighted homes, and praying the Novena to Father Augustus Tolton for the spiritual welfare of the Black American community.

I frequently visit another Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church that has a great deal in common with my home parish. This one is in Columbus, Ohio. Like Saint Dominic’s in Youngstown, due to degentrification, it is now situated in a lower-income and predominantly Black neighborhood. Both parishes were founded in the 1800’s. Both were historically made up of Italian and Irish congregants. Both Church buildings are large and classically built with high pillars, choir lofts, communion rails, and filled with sunlight that parades into the nave through beautifully adorned stained-glass windows. Both parishes used to have their own parochial schools, and nearly all of their membership drive in on Saturdays and Sundays from outside the neighborhood.

The most striking difference between the parishes is in their current demographics. Saint Dominic’s in Youngstown still looks like it always has, but Saint Dominic’s in Columbus is now predominantly Black. Much of the present population of the parish is made up of the sons, daughters and grandchildren of Saint Cyprian Parish, the first Catholic Church in Columbus to serve the Black community. It wasn’t until 1943 that the first Black family was registered at Saint Dominic’s. After Saint Cyprian merged with it 1957,  the trajectory of the current demographic was set.

Father Joshua Wagner began his homily on June 1 by stating that his homily  was unfinished and, perhaps, never to be finished. He then made a few remarks about a book that he’d been reading calledRebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish. The book defines “Consumer Catholics“ as those who come to Mass on Sundays looking to get something out of it, he explained. His remarks about the consumer mentality were a segue into the shocking meat of his homily that morning.

He spoke of  the hundreds of neighborhood people for whom the parish provides free meals twice a day,  Monday through Friday, at their parish center and the people who come to Mass on Sundays, noting that “The people whom we serve during the week are not the same people whom we serve on Sundays.”

If we are going to survive as a parish, the people whom we serve during the week are going to have to become the people whom we serve on Sunday. We are going to have to welcome them into our Church; no matter if they look different from us; if they don’t dress as we do; and if they don’t have as much money as we do. I’ve heard from families who live in this neighborhood who were told that they could not become members of this parish.

Fr. Wagner remarked that the mission statement printed in the parish bulletin is all fine and dandy, but that the Catholic Church already has a mission statement, and that is to go out into the world and teach all that Christ Jesus has commanded (Cf. Mt. 28: 16-20).

After sharing that two of his brother priests had died during the past week, he said, “There’s a storm coming. I’m telling you. The parishes that are going to stay open are the ones who are bringing in new members, and the ones that are not, are going to be closed.”  Saint Dominic’s had only one person come into the Church this past Easter.

The Fight for Relevance and Survival

I have always told people that the reason there aren’t more Black Catholics is … Black Catholics. We sometimes seem to be elitist – feeling we’re better than non-Catholic Blacks. Our arms are not outstretched wide, inviting everyone in. That’s the difference between covetousness and love, isn’t it? Love can’t help but to share itself and to give itself away, while covetousness just wants to play keep-away from others.

The main reason I visit Saint Dominic’s in Columbus is that Felicia once told me if she ever becomes a Catholic it will be at that parish. The preaching style and music are a bit more familiar to her, as she is a Protestant. Yet as many times as I’ve visited Saint Dominic’s in Columbus and Saint Benedict the Moor in Dayton, Ohio, I have never even been asked my name. In contrast, walking out of Saint Dominic’s in Youngstown or Saint Pius X in Columbus, Ohio after my second or third visit there, I was invited out to breakfast and some parishioners invited me to join a parish group.

I love the fact that predominantly Black Catholic Churches seem to be very communal. Everyone seems to know each other. Everyone meanders for minutes, around to every pew,  to exchange the sign of peace, using it as an opportunity to greet each other. But Fr. Wagner is absolutely correct–we have to take what is inside the Church to those on the outside.

If the inner-city Catholic Church is going to become spiritually relevant to the people in the neighborhood and avoid being closed by the Bishop, we can no longer just rely on parishioners driving in from the suburbs or for African immigrants to fill the pews. We must employ the Church’s time-honored building and replenishing plan, the one that Christ Jesus told us about.  We have to engage strangers and invite them into a friendship with the Jesus we know. We must invite them to our wedding feast. We must invite them to R.C.I.A., for the harvest is plenty . . .

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