Greenwood parish featured in national series

By Patricia Zapor
WASHINGTON (CNS) – If Pope Francis were to have time on his U.S. visit in September to stop at “typical” parishes, it might take a week or two just to see a representative sample.
Of course, while no two parishes anywhere in the world are exactly alike, North American Catholics who grew up in the middle of the 20th century likely would have felt more or less at home at the time visiting most churches around the United States.
The average parish of those decades probably was not unlike the version found in movies such as “Going My Way,” the Bing Crosby classic. In such parishes, “Father” was in charge of a smooth-running operation, with a couple of priests to assist him. Likely, “Sister” and other religious women ran the school. A handful of laypeople had minor parish support roles, but mostly the laity was found in the pews, bringing their children to school or supporting the church through bingo, carnivals and pancake breakfasts.
Today, changing demographics of the U.S. Catholic population have brought a great deal of variety to parishes – the U.S. church is now 40 percent Latino, a proportion that is rapidly increasing. Fewer Catholics feel compelled to have the kind of every-Sunday commitment to Mass that previous generations did. And an increasingly secularized, mobile and multicultural society has ended the days when one’s neighborhood or the country where one’s parents were born dictated what church the family attended.
But perhaps more than anything else, the changes in the way Catholic parishes function is a byproduct of the dramatic shift in the number of priests. Nearly one in five U.S. parishes lacks a resident priest pastor, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In about 430 parishes – 2.5 percent of all U.S. parishes – the management is in the hands of a deacon or layperson such as a parish life coordinator or lay ecclesial minister.
In a project intended to provide a snapshot of some of the ways the U.S. church functions, over the course of three years, Catholic News Service reporters visited a cross-section of parishes around the country. The churches were chosen because they represent particular types of communities and certain models of parish management. In an unexpected bit of overlap, it turns out that the first parish visited, St. Francis of Assisi in the white, middle-class Midwestern manufacturing town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, regularly sends parishioners on a summer mission trip to the last parish CNS visited, another St. Francis of Assisi, this one home to mostly African-Americans and Hispanics in the poverty-stricken, rural southern town of Greenwood, Mississippi.
The parishes visited included:
St. Francis of Assisi in Manitowoc; The Church of the Sacred Heart in South Plainfield, New Jersey; St. Ann Parish of Coppell, Texas; Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, California; Our Lady of Redemption, a Melkite parish in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan. St. John By the Sea, the sole parish on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Greenwood, Mississippi, founded by the Franciscan friars to serve African-Americans in the midst of the ugliest days of the civil rights struggles in the South.
The stories will look at how these parishes faced somilar issues. For example, in Manitowoc six parishes were closed or ‘supressed’ to form one city-wide parish that rotates between three worship sites. In the California parish, a lay woman is the boss in the parish, in charge of two full-time priest-ministers, various lay and religous minsiters and three other priests who assist in various ways. The largest parish, St. Anne in Coppell, Texas, boasts more than 30,000 members in 8,900 registered families – more than the entire Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota. In contrast, St. John by the Sea on Price of Wales Island is only accessible by plane or boat, but serves a huge geographic region.
Stories in the series will look at the state of parish finances, clergy roles, education – both elementary schools and religious education programs – and some non-traditional ways parishes organize themselves today. See the full description of all the parishes visited on
(Look in upcoming editions of Mississippi Catholic for more installments from this series. Dennis Sadowski, in South Plainfield, Mark Pattison in Coppell and Warren, and Nancy Wiechec in Klawock contributed to this story.)