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Church closures hit immigrants

LYNN --One by one, they stepped to the microphone, the children in white shirts with red ribbons and blue vests, and they recited, with nervous smiles and in halting Polish, brief poems of tribute to a Polish constitution written long before they were born, long before their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents fled Poland for the United States, long before those immigrants arrived in this working-class city and built themselves a church.

That church, St. Michael's on Summer Street, is filled with reminders of a country some of these children have never seen: an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa; a statue of Queen Jadwiga; the strains of the Polish national anthem, sung from the altar; a red-and-white stole draped over the cross.

And then there are the people, sitting in pews illuminated by sunlight that filters in through stained-glass windows with the names that speak to this church's fading past; Lombarow, Glabickich, and Cibirka; Kotolowskich, Ostrowskiego, and Jarzembowska. In the front pews, in neat navy jackets with red epaulets and pointy blue hats, are the men of the Polish Legion of American Veterans, with them the Ladies Auxiliary in their blue capes and the women of the Holy Rosary Sodality, who wear a special medallion each day in May and fine themselves 25 cents if they forget. A few rows back, a young couple is decked out in embroidered Krakovian finery.

They are proud but nervous, these Polish-American Catholics, as they gather this Sunday for a celebration of faith and culture, for Sunday Mass and a celebration of Polish Constitution Day, a celebration they know may be their last in this church.

Throughout the Archdiocese of Boston, as Catholics brace for the scheduled May 25 announcement of which parishes will close and which remain open, few groups are as fearful as those who prefer to worship in the language and culture of their countries of origin, including the Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans who began to arrive in large numbers in the late 20th century, and the descendants of non-English-speaking Europeans who arrived primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

'Special regard'

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who arrived in Boston last summer pledging to make new immigrants a key part of his ministry, has promised to look after them even as he drastically reduces the number of churches in the cash-strapped Archdiocese of Boston. ''Special regard must be given to the new immigrants who have cultural needs, linguistic and otherwise,'' he told priests in a December speech, and his spokesman reiterated that commitment last week. But O'Malley faces a difficult reality as he makes his decisions: Immigrant Catholics are concentrated in the diocese's smallest congregations, oldest buildings, and poorest cities.

The archdiocese does not keep precise statistics on the demographic makeup of worshipers, but church officials estimate that about 300,000 of the estimated 2 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston are Spanish speaking. The other largest groups of Catholic immigrants are Brazilians, Haitians, and Vietnamese.

For decades, particularly from the 1870s through the 1920s, the archdiocese encouraged immigrant Catholic populations, many of which arrived in the United States with their own priests, to build their own churches.

These parishes, once called national parishes and now called personal parishes, define their membership by ethnicity, unlike most Catholic parishes, which are called territorial parishes and draw their membership mostly from their surrounding neighborhoods.

Many of these personal parishes have dwindling congregations, as the ethnic groups they were built to serve have assimilated, intermarried, and moved to the suburbs. And in many cases, the connection to the original ethnic group is minimal.

Holy Trinity Church in the South End, formed 160 years ago as a German parish, now marks its heritage by using some German hymns and with an annual Oktoberfest. St. George Church in Norwood, a Lithuanian national parish, no longer lists itself as Lithuanian in the Boston Catholic Directory because some parishioners thought the label was limiting membership; the parish no longer holds Mass in Lithuanian, and the main vestige of its identity is an occasional meeting of a nationwide Catholic fraternal organization called the Knights of Lithuania.

But, even though the archdiocese has closed 29 of these ``personal parishes'' since 1985, more than 10 percent of the parishes in the archdiocese -- 41 out of 357 -- remain in that category, most designated to serve French, Italian, and Polish communities.

Reinvention

Some have reinvented themselves, such as Sacred Heart, a French parish in Brockton that now ministers to Haitian immigrants. And others, such as St. Michael in Lynn, still have relatively strong identities. St. Michael's has a weekly Mass in Polish and offers Polish language classes.

Older parishioners are struggling with the realization that their church may close.

''My six children went to school here, they got married here, and now my last child is going to have to get married at St. Pius,'' said Carol Hanscom, 64, of Lynn, a lifelong parishioner. ''Is that nice? That's not nice.''

And 91-year-old Lynn resident Jeanette Kallery, a Polish-American who explains her last name by saying, ''I've had two Irish husbands and I'm looking for a third one,'' said she wrote to O'Malley asking him to keep her lifelong church open, at least until 2006, when it would mark its centennial. ''The children,'' she said, ''where will they go? Where will they seek God? I hear them say, 'Oh, good, I won't have to go to church anymore.'''

But younger parishioners are more pragmatic -- several said they are willing to drive farther to Mass, so long as O'Malley will protect some Polish Masses in the region. Eric Kazimierczyk, 32, a Lynn resident who immigrated from Poland in 1984, said, ''I signed a petition, too, but I know they have to do something -- the church is running out of money.''

The Archdiocese of Boston, as with many American dioceses, stopped erecting national parishes decades ago, as the civil rights movement, the Second Vatican Council, and other social changes caused church officials to rethink their willingness to encourage ethnic groups to worship separately from one another. Immigration patterns had an effect too. As immigrants from the developing world began to arrive, they often did not bring priests or the wherewithal to build their own parishes, so the archdiocese had to minister to them using local priests and existing churches.

''To keep building churches all the time for every group is tricky,'' says John T. McGreevy, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. ''To be fair to the bishops, they're in a tough spot to figure out how to deal with constant immigration, assimilation of Catholic ethnics after two or three generations, a limited supply of priests, and a limited number of buildings they can support.''

But the archdiocese continues to encourage ethnic groups to worship together, citing studies that suggest multicultural worship services often are unsatisfying for new immigrants. According to the archdiocese, 67 of 357 parishes now have sizable ethnic communities, as identified by the local pastors, and the archdiocese now offers regular liturgies in Cantonese, Creole, Crioulo, French, Hmong, Igbo, Italian, Khmer, Korean, Lithuanian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, as well as in English, Latin, and American Sign Language.

Tigrinya and Amharic

After years of effort, the archdiocese has just succeeded in hiring a priest who can celebrate Mass twice a month in Tigrinya, an Eritrean language, and twice a month in Amharic, an Ethiopian language. And the archdiocese is hoping at some point to be able to offer regular Mass for immigrants from Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda.

Some immigrants say their connection to God is stronger in their native language.

''I can't pray in English,'' said Rafal M. Jablonka, 38, of Lynnfield, who immigrated from Poland when he was 26, and is bilingual. Dr. Cheonil Kim, 57, of Dover, who worships at a Korean Mass, agreed, saying, ''Many people understand more, and feel more, in Korean. The whole Mass just comes through to us that way.''

New immigrant groups worship either in parishes near where their communities are concentrated or in parishes assigned to them by the archdiocese. In some cases, immigrant communities have been assigned to parishes in an apparent effort to increase the number of worshipers at struggling parishesa strategy that now has the potential to backfire because many immigrant communities are situated at churches that might close.

The dwindling Haitian community of Cambridge -- increasingly priced out of the city since the demise of rent control -- appears likely to be hit twice. The community had worshiped at Our Lady of Pity Church, even after the parish was closed, until the archdiocese sold the building last year; then the community was relocated to Immaculate Conception Church, but now that church has been recommended for closure.

The relationships between the immigrant parishioners and the neighborhood parishioners vary, but frequently the immigrant communities are assigned less-popular worship times, and sometimes they are assigned less-desirable worship spaces -- a practice the archdiocese discourages.

The Nigerian Catholic community, now about 200 families, worships at the struggling St. John-St. Hugh Church in the Grove Hall section of Boston, a neighborhood where few Nigerians live. Each Sunday at 1 p.m., Nigerian families, striking for how much younger they are than the average Catholic congregation gather in traditional Nigerian garb, many of the women in brightly colored head scarves and wrap skirts, the men in buba shirts and sokoto pants. The worship style is highly participatory, with men and women swaying and clapping in the pews, and at times dancing in the aisles; even the Nigerian-born priest, the Rev. Felix C. Ojimba, is an active participant in song and dance, as a choir beats out songs on Nigerian drums and a ritual rattle called an osha.

Much of the Nigerian worship takes place in English only the hymns are in Igbo but worshipers say the service is still distinctly Nigerian. And, as is the case in many other immigrant liturgies, the Nigerian Mass plays an important role in helping recent immigrants, many of whom do not live near one another, sustain their community. ''The challenge is trying to raise our kids in a culture we didn't grow up with, and that's a tough challenge for us,'' said George C. Ogbonnanze, 43, of Holbrook. ''We have concerns ? we aren't sure if this church is going to be here or not ? but we are satisfied that the church will take care of our interests.''

The Korean community, which travels from throughout New England to worship at St. Philip Neri Church, an endangered parish in the Waban section of Newton, is taking a similarly flexible posture toward its future. The community has already been relocated once, from Lexington to Newton, and many expect to be moved again.

''Here the American community is slightly smaller than us, and we have the freedom to use the building for our small groups and our kids programs and our language classes and our CCD. We worry that if we move to another place, there will be more restrictions on us,'' said Sangki Park, 36, of Brookline. ''Of course there is some concern, a lot of concern, because we like it here.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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