Discovering an old-school ethnic parish in the Midwest

Not too long after Christmas, I found myself attending Sunday Mass in a 135-year-old Polish parish church in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich. (My wife, kids and I were in the area visiting cousins.)

It must be one of the last few vibrant ethnic parishes in the country. A men’s choir sang Polish Christmas carols (in Polish, of course) during Communion. The Mass was packed, with a balanced representation across the generations, from young families to elderly in wheelchairs. The church and sanctuary were immaculate and carefully decorated (according to a report I read afterward in the bulletin, the sanctuary is decorated with some 19 Christmas trees of varying heights that bear a total of something like 28,300 lights).

I noticed a lot more people than I usually see with hymn book in hand singing along, and the liturgical responses were loud and energetic.

Afterward, I was shocked to find that Mass had lasted nearly an hour and a half — it may have been the shortest hour-and-a-half long liturgy I’ve ever attended.

The parish was clearly very Polish. Many of the faces around me had that distinctive Polish look, and the vast majority of people named in the Prayers of the Faithful had surnames ending in “ski.”

There was Polish language on the front of the bulletin, and the mission statement describing the parish as “a vibrant faith community, rooted and enriched in Polish culture, Sacred Tradition and Spirit-led celebrations.”

A few weeks ago, in our Christmas issue, we published Christmas memories sent in by you, the readers. I was struck this year and last how many of them were rooted in an experience of parish life that is ethnic, whether it be Irish, Italian, Polish, you name it.

By and large in this country, that sort of experience no longer exists for Catholic Americans. And many of the churches once so proudly built by the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, in cities across the northeast and upper Midwest are being closed or merged.

The benefit of belonging to an ethnic parish seems to be the strong sense of ownership and engagement. Of course, there can be downsides, too; a faith that is corrupted by nationalism, for instance.

It is hard to see many ethnic parishes like the Polish one I visited surviving much longer in that identity. In fact, the priest who celebrated Mass that day appeared Latin American, with a thick but understandable Spanish accent.

There are benefits to that, too, of course. For one, a multi-ethnic parish gives a greater sense of the Church’s universality and of the fact that all people are sons and daughters of God.

But the risk is disengagement — from the parish and the faith.

How can today’s parishes enkindle that same sense of ownership as culture or ethnicity?

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