We traveled to four Catholic parishes across the country to make a documentary. These are their stories.
If you don’t mind sidestepping a construction zone on Washington Street and looking twice before crossing the light rail tracks, the walk from Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish to St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., is very manageable. The two churches, both lovely, sit a half mile apart, just a few city blocks.
Today, however, the thousands gathered in the parking lot of Immaculate Heart of Mary will not be walking from the church to the basilica. They’ll be dancing to it.
It is Dec. 4, 2021, and Catholics from around the sprawling Phoenix area have descended on downtown for the beginning of the annual Honor Your Mother festival, a nine-day-long celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which will culminate on her feast day, Dec. 12. This first day of the celebration features a parade from Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish to St. Mary’s Basilica.
It is stunning. After arriving at the church at the crack of dawn to organize themselves, participants begin the journey. Dancers known as matachines don decorative, hand-painted masks and process in troupes of 20 or 30, spinning and stomping to the deep, mesmerizing rhythm of their drum corps; 12-foot-tall human-like puppets glide along, controlled by a dancer hidden inside. Elaborate decorative floats, typically one from each participating parish, are hitched to the back of pickup trucks and feature live-action re-enactments of Our Lady’s apparition to Juan Diego, with Mary often played by a local teenage girl. Slowly but surely, the crowd of thousands arrives at the steps of the basilica, where they are greeted and blessed by the bishop before Mass begins.
This spectacle of color was one of many memorable moments on our year-long journey to understand more fully the joys and challenges, the intricacies and nuances of Catholic parish life in the United States today.
Would the concerns of everyday life in Catholic parishes vary in a way that paralleled the divisive social media landscape?
New York, N.Y., September 2021
In the fall of 2021, America Media’s video team hatched an idea: What would it look like if we traveled to four parishes across the United States during the course of one year and assessed their similarities and differences? How would they diverge demographically, racially, politically? Where are parishes growing and where are they declining? What would the pastoral priorities and challenges look like in different communities? Would the concerns of everyday life in Catholic parishes vary in a way that paralleled the divisive social media landscape?
Keeping geographical and ethnic diversity in mind, we traveled to Phoenix, Ariz.; Antigo, Wis.; Cut Off, La.; and Boston, Mass. We wanted to explore what it means to be Catholic in a particular parish, a particular city, a particular region.
The stories that follow offer snapshots of what we found. It is hardly a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of parish life or every Catholic demographic in the United States; such a task would be impossible.
Certainly national trends—the impact of Covid-19; influx of immigration; church demographics; parish mergers, clusters and closures; a desire for diversity and inclusion in parishes and more—are playing out in different regions of the country. But as we discovered, these ideas are balanced by the complex experiences of real people: undocumented immigrants, crawfishermen, lay parish employees, a priest who cross-country skis, dairy farmers, firemen with rich Boston accents, teachers and doctors raising three children.
Through our experiences with these Catholics, and through the stories of their parishes, we hope to paint a portrait of Catholic parish life in the U.S. today.
With this documentary film, we hope to paint a portrait of Catholic parish life in the U.S. today.
The danger of two churches
Phoenix, Ariz., December 2021
The Honor Your Mother parade begins at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, a location that has a painful historical significance for Hispanic Catholics.
Following a renovation of the basilica in downtown Phoenix in the early 1900s, which split the building into an upper and lower church, the pastor decided all Hispanic community activities, including Mass, would take place in the lower church, and the Anglo community would use the upper church. This decision was the impetus for the construction of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, which the Hispanic community built as its own.
Today, amid explosive population growth in the Phoenix area and across southern states like Arizona, two things are true: The number of Catholics is growing, and the number of Hispanic Catholics is growing too, particularly among younger generations of Catholics. But almost as soon as we arrived in Phoenix, we discovered this growing church has a problem that echoes its past.
“You run the risk of having two churches, one that is an Anglo church, and then another one that is just a Spanish-speaking church, and that never the two shall meet. And that’s the danger,” said Armando Ruiz. “We have to figure out a way to intermix.”
The challenges of integration are felt most profoundly by many Hispanic Catholics at the parish level.
Mr. Ruiz has worked as a consultant to Catholic Church leadership at both the diocesan and the national level and has seen the difficulties of integrating the Hispanic and Anglo communities at all levels of the church. For an example, look no further than the Honor Your Mother festival, which Mr. Ruiz helped develop. It grew out of an initiative from the diocese’s Immigrant Task Force in 2006 and was intended to focus on the dignity of migrants. Diocesan leaders hoped the festival could be an instrument of integration.
“In Our Lady, specifically Our Lady of Guadalupe, we have a great model for bringing about unity between diverse culture and language,” said the Rev. David Sanfilippo, the vicar of priests for the Diocese of Phoenix. “She [appeared] to an Indigenous man, Juan Diego, bringing the message of hope and the love of God and encouragement in the midst of a very difficult time in the lives of indigenous people.”
But despite the diocese’s sincere push for integration, the effort was not reflected in the participants of the festival; nearly everyone we saw was Hispanic.
The challenges of integration are felt most profoundly by many Hispanic Catholics at the parish level. Sometimes this is due to a general attitude of skepticism or even hostility from the Anglo community toward Hispanic immigrants.
“Some people say, ‘Why’d these people come here? They don’t have the money,’” said Carolina Uribe, director of evangelization at St. Mary’s Parish in Chandler, Ariz. “‘Why [don’t they] stay in their countries? Why [did] they come here? They don’t speak the language.’”
Ms. Uribe, herself a Mexican immigrant, has spent 32 years at St. Mary’s, a literally two-church parish. The parish opened its second church building, St. Juan Diego, in 2017 to accommodate the growing community. “People come to register almost every day,” said Ms. Uribe, who recalled that before the construction of the new church, 1,500 people would show up for Mass in Spanish on Sunday at St. Mary’s, a church that seats 750.
Over time, the parish has responded to the pastoral needs of a rapidly growing Hispanic community. In some ways, it has succeeded.
“When I came here, there was one Spanish Mass. Now there are four on the weekend and five days a week,” said Ms. Uribe, “Monday through Friday in Spanish.” She also noted that their pastor, the Rev. Dan McBride, has made an effort to have more bilingual employees and to staff the parish office with someone who can answer questions in Spanish.
“Tradition and family,” said Carolina Uribe. “I think this is the rock for Hispanics.”
But based on our conversations with Ms. Uribe and others in the diocese, it seems long-term integration must push further than Spanish Masses. Similar to Mr. Ruiz’s observation about two churches, Ms. Uribe said the Hispanic community and the Anglo community often seem to operate on different planes of existence, merely sharing the church buildings without a deeper connection. This arrangement does not allow the two communities to learn from and grow with each other.
“When people [come] from other countries, they offer to our community [a sense of] family, of traditions. Tradition and family—I think this is the rock for Hispanics,” she said.
The Honor Your Mother celebration is “a big event, a big day for all the diocese, with almost all the Hispanic community,” she said. “Sometimes they ask for the day off from their jobs to be there.... These people come from work. They work in the hard places like restaurants, cleaning bathrooms, ladies cleaning houses, people doing the roofs during summer here. And then [the church] says, we need you because we want to have a big event this weekend. They’re not tired. They are so happy to serve the Lord in this way, to serve the church.”
This challenge to integrate the two communities—Anglo and Hispanic—will continue to play out in the Southwest, but it will not remain there. As the church nationwide becomes increasingly Hispanic, this same issue is already confronting parishes and dioceses in every corner of the country.
As the church nationwide becomes increasingly Hispanic, the challenge is to integrate communities.
A hopeful institution in steep decline
Antigo, Wis., March 2022
Starting in the small town of Antigo and heading east toward the middle of nowhere, the Rev. Joel Sember can make the drive to White Lake, Wis., in just under 30 minutes. As he turns off the state highway to enter the town of 352 people, the road winds around the 153-acre lake from which the town takes its name. Spring started two weeks ago, but the lake missed the memo—it is covered in a thick sheet of snow and ice. So is the parking lot that Father Sember pulls into behind a quaint, wooden church.
He has arrived at the small-town parish of Saints James and Stanislaus, which will soon become the fourth parish of his “cluster”—a group of parishes that share a common administration under one pastor. Antigo, the town of 8,100 where Father Sember resides, used to have four parishes; then two were merged. Near White Lake’s parish was another rural parish, and they merged in 2021. At one time, each of these six old churches had its own priest.
Within a few months, Father Sember will be pastor to them all.
Declining numbers of priests and fewer Catholics in the pews have made this style of parish community a challenge to maintain in many areas of the United States, and the Midwest has been particularly affected. In this region, clustering is a common way for bishops to respond to shrinking numbers of people and resources. Although the practice preserves some elements of the original parish communities, it also brings its own set of pastoral challenges.
Father Sember has come to White Lake to meet with two of the key parishioners, Michael and Susan Hickey. He wants to put them at ease about the transition.
“My goal is to make as few changes as possible in the first year, just so that you guys get comfortable with us, we get comfortable with you, and we’ll have to work some bugs out,” Father Sember told them.
Mr. and Ms. Hickey, charmingly kind and generous with their time, put on a good face for the meeting, but their small community has suffered. Their parish merged with another small parish community only a year ago. One of the church buildings, which had been a home to Catholics for 120 years, had been permanently closed. “The reality is that we could no longer afford to maintain two buildings,” Mr. Hickey said.
Community members grieved and were angry. “There will be some people that aren’t talking to each other for a long time,” Father Sember told us. “Some of the folks involved in the decision-making process were told [by fellow parishioners] not to come to the closing Mass.”
Clustering and parish mergers allow pastors and lay people to think creatively about the community they want to build.
But clustering and parish mergers, though often painful, open up a new set of opportunities for a Catholic parish and allow pastors and lay people to think creatively about the type of community they want to build. “Here within Antigo, the fact that we have three clustered churches gives us a lot more resources that we’re able to work with,” said Father Sember. “We have a K–8 school that we’re able to maintain because the parishes are pitching in. We can do more with staff. We can do more with adult faith formation because we have more resources. And so there are benefits that come from pooling your resources.” Some of the parishioners suggest that the parish should simplify even further: Would it be possible to operate out of a single church to steward their resources more effectively? Father Sember filters all these options through a guiding principle: “To me, the question is the community. Are we growing in community with God, first of all, and then in community with each other?”
Father Sember’s patient pastoral approach stems from a wealth of experience with clusters. In fact, since he was ordained 15 years ago, he has always had at least two parishes under his care.
“My last assignment was a three-parish cluster; before that was a two-parish cluster; before that was a very complicated cluster,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m pretty familiar with trying to maintain each community’s unique sense of identity.”
But despite the benefits of clustering, this does not offer a long-term fix for the declining numbers of priests. A vibrant group of permanent deacons and lay ministers has helped. There are more permanent deacons than ordained diocesan priests in this diocese.
“As a priest, you think all the ministry falls on you, but it doesn’t. You are a minister to the ministers. The people that you’re ministering to are then going to go preach the Gospel in their everyday life,” said Father Sember. “And so we need to be identifying the gifts that our lay people have. We need to be supporting and forming them in living those gifts.”
For a Midwestern church in steep decline, the answer to how best to encourage people in their faith may lie beyond the walls of a particular place.
“I think the church has been attached to being a successful institution, and we were good at it, but [an institution] doesn’t really change hearts,” said Father Sember. “Really, I need to just be content to serve Jesus without worrying about the numbers. Are hearts changing, are minds changing, are people growing in their faith? That’s what matters.”
There are more permanent deacons than ordained diocesan priests in this diocese.
The challenge of facing and responding to climate disaster
Cut Off, La., May 2022
In their four decades in Cut Off, La., Ashley and Al Archer had never witnessed a storm like Hurricane Ida. On Aug. 29, 2021—the same day Hurricane Katrina had made landfall 16 years prior—Hurricane Ida rampaged through Cut Off and much of southern Louisiana, leaving little in its wake.
Evacuation was mandatory. The Archers, both retired teachers, immediately boarded up their house and commuted to Mobile, Ala., where they stayed for several days before returning the following week. “It was just people’s homes and businesses just ripped apart. Nothing like we ever saw before,” said Mr. Archer. “Everybody was brought down to the same level; meaning that you had no power, hardly any water, no food, no gasoline, no anything.”
While a major weather event like Ida may seem unusual, the people of Lafourche Parish are hardly alone in feeling these effects. More than 40 percent of Americans live in places affected by climate disasters in 2021.
Every person we spoke to recounted the devastating impact of this 10-hour, Category 4 storm, the second-most damaging and intense natural disaster on record to strike the area. Miraculously, not a single death was reported in Lafourche Parish.
In Louisiana, the word parish does not necessarily refer to the local Catholic community but rather to political counties in the state. But the Catholic culture runs deep, so it was no surprise that people turned to the local church as a central place of refuge and aid in the aftermath of the storm. Community members crowded into the parking lot of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Cut Off to help unload an 18-wheeler truck filled with essential supplies that parishioners from a Catholic church in neighboring Mississippi had donated. Sacred Heart also had a generator, which meant it could power the church’s air conditioning unit to offer some relief.
At the first Sunday Mass after the storm, the Rev. Greg Fratt, pastor of Sacred Heart, “was up there crying,” said Ms. Archer, who coordinates youth ministry at the parish and is a volunteer in the N.I.C.U. ward of a New Orleans hospital. “Everybody in their pew was crying.” But despite havoc and ruin, Ida also spurred thanksgiving and renewed faith and purpose. “The church stepped up as a reminder that God is still there in the end. This is all material stuff,” said Mr. Archer, who is the chair of the pastoral council and serves on the Lafourche Parish school board. “There’s always hope.”
As the effects of climate change grow more severe, communities like Sacred Heart, who are among the most affected, have a unique opportunity to imagine a Catholic response to this issue.
Hurricane Ida took a toll on the coastal wetlands as well. Storms like Ida are intensifying and accelerating land erosion. Decades of dredging by the oil and gas industries, along with rising sea levels, have also weakened the coastline. “We know what’s happening, but we feel kind of helpless,” said Father Fratt in a telephone conversation months after our visit. “We’re in this long lament about our homeland washing away, but we don’t know what we can do about it.” The fishing, oil and gas industries in southern Louisiana—which provide food and energy to huge portions of the U.S.—have provided well-paying jobs and lifted many people out of poverty, said Father Fratt. “It’s a very complicated reality.”
As the effects of climate change grow more severe, communities like Sacred Heart, who are among the most affected, have a unique opportunity to imagine a Catholic response to this issue.
“When I think of the Cajun community of people, I think of resilience, friendship, hardworking, values,” said Mr. Archer. All of these were on display as the community found a way to wade through this natural catastrophe. “Family is very important to the people down here.”
The pre-eminence of the family is also reflected in the parish’s commitment to the protection of the unborn. It is a pastoral priority of the parish, based on our conversations with the parishioners. “We’re pro-life down here,” said Mr. Archer. “We feel that it’s a very hot and very important issue here in this church.”
“Pro-life is where you’re looking at two humans,” said Ms. Archer, “instead of the mom’s choice of ‘this is my body and I can choose to do whatever I want with it.’”
As a part of this ministry and recognizing the need to support pregnant women facing difficult decisions, parishioners have organized material and financial support for a crisis pregnancy center in Houma, La. They also host prayer services throughout the year and have previously sent delegations to the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
“It’s part of our pastoral ministry here to be a support,” said Father Fratt. “Not just only an advocate in prayer, but also a support for women who are in crisis trying to make that decision.”
Communities like Sacred Heart, have a unique opportunity to imagine a Catholic response to climate disaster.
The hard work of inclusion
Boston, Mass., June 2022
It is probably safe to assume that for most Sunday churchgoers, the day starts slowly. But Natasha Hartman’s alarm rings at 4 a.m. A mother of three young girls—a 7-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 10-month-old, she has no time to sleep in. “I woke up at 4:45 this morning and we were still five minutes late” for 9:30 a.m. Mass, she said.
When Dr. Hartman, a pediatric hematologist, moved to Boston for work in 2011, she knew she wanted to get married in a Catholic Church and one day raise her children in the faith, but arriving in Boston as a young doctor with a grueling schedule and punishing working hours, she struggled to find a Catholic community where she might feel drawn to register as a parishioner.
“It was a time where I was trying to find a sort of a parish that I could call home,” she said. “It’s hard to do that when you can’t always be at a certain Mass, for example.”
In contrast to the other locations we visited, which were more suburban or rural, Catholics in major cities typically have numerous options when looking for a church to attend. But choosing a parish can be an intimidating process. For Dr. Hartman, the fact that she was unaffiliated with a parish proved to be an obstacle when she was preparing to marry her then-fiancée Jan Hartman. The couple struggled to find a priest willing to allow them to celebrate their desired nuptial Mass in his parish. Dr. Hartman was not yet registered as a parishioner anywhere, and Mr. Hartman did not have a parish because he is not Catholic.
A friend recommended she meet with the Rev. John Unni, the pastor of Saint Cecilia, a thriving parish in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston that serves around 3,000 families, according to its parish website. “He was like, ‘Sure, I’ll marry you,’” Dr. Hartman said. “That was really powerful for us, that that wasn’t an issue. He also didn’t try to change anything about Jan. He just said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And at that point we said, ‘O.K. We’re gonna get married at this church. Let’s go see; let’s go find out more about this parish.’”
The welcoming spirit at Saint Cecilia is no accident. “Creating a welcoming community, an inclusive, non-judgmental parish, is key. It’s where people can just come as they are and meet, and then we go forward together,” said Father Unni. “That’s how Jesus did it; he just met people where they were at. He went and kind of found them; they found him. Then once you have that interaction, you go forward together. And, I think, that’s what I want the experience to be here at Saint Cecilia.”
“Creating a welcoming community, an inclusive, non-judgmental parish, is key," said Father Unni.
From the day Dr. Hartman entered her newfound parish, she was enthralled. “We were like: ‘Wow, this is where we need to be,’” she said. “We were drawn to the community; we were drawn to the beauty of the place—and not just the beauty, the physical beauty, but it was the beauty that sort of welcomes you when you first just walk in there.”
Welcome was the word at Saint Cecilia. Everyone we spoke with—whether in a planned interview with a staff member or in random conversations with several parishioners after Sunday Mass—mentioned the community’s desire to be a place for everyone, and especially for those who found themselves on the margins.
“Father John has built a community here, but it is a community of communities. So there are various little groups that sort of coalesce and form here,” explained Mark Lippolt, a parishioner and a catechist, who also coordinates the parish’s Hunger and Homelessness ministry. Mr. Lippolt, like Dr. Hartman, found that something more than an appreciation of the aesthetics of the church kept him in the pews. “I’ve been here as an out gay man for my 30-year period here, and have been an out gay man as a faith formation teacher,” he said. Saint Cecilia has long been a place of welcome for the L.G.B.T.Q. community, “even before Father John’s time,” Mr. Lippolt added.
The widespread protests for racial justice interrogated the parish members’ professed commitment to be agents for social justice.
The death of George Floyd and the subsequent widespread protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020 challenged the parish, which is largely white, affluent and college-educated, to interrogate its members’ professed commitment to be agents for social justice and meaningful change and to offer an environment that is truly welcoming for all.
After some internal reckoning, and a recognition of its founding mission—as a parish started in the late 19th century to offer a community to the impoverished, working-class Irish immigrant community working in the wealthy Back Bay homes of Boston—the parish renewed its mission and desire to be a place where all could find a home.
The parish’s social justice ministry decided to form a racial equity team. It was initially composed of only white people. “I think that was somewhat intentional,” said Dr. Hartman, who is Black, “in that the parish was really insistent upon the fact that it wasn’t Black and people of color that needed to do the work.”
But ultimately Dr. Hartman was invited to join. “At some point,” she said, “the team said ‘We actually could use some people who’ve experienced this all their lives, and who have been thinking about this all their lives.’”
Understanding that diversity of experiences in the parish has been a key step in the committee’s work. Leah Bennett was the communications and operations manager and the parish staff person dedicated to oversee the committee’s work. (She no longer works at the parish.) Ms. Bennett shared an experience of the committee’s first meetings: “Somebody on the team who’s white said, ‘When I’m at Mass, I look out and I see a lot of different people from different backgrounds, different races, it really feels like a diverse place.’ And then one of the participants in the group who’s Black said, ‘Actually, whenever I’m at Mass, I feel like I’m the only one.’”
“The hardest part of being on any team like that,” said Dr. Hartman, “and being involved in the work is oftentimes being the only BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] person and potentially the only one with that background of years, decades, of dealing with racism. And feeling at times like somebody who needs to explain things, over and over again, educate individuals who haven’t had that experience.”
Saint Cecilia parishioners continue to discover that fostering real inclusion is a difficult but necessary task, and the community’s efforts continue to inspire Dr. Hartman and her young family.
“What continues to give me the courage, as well as the strength to continue doing a lot of this work, is seeing change and seeing growth, and seeing real desire on the part of people who really care about this work,” she said. “I think that the parish and the parishioners are so dynamic that they can go outside of the church and see others, and really appreciate what others are going through. And I think that changes the world.”
Saint Cecilia parishioners continue to discover that fostering real inclusion is a difficult but necessary task.