2019 Grateful 21: Masses in Two States

Going to mass in the USA is quite the experience. Apart from the fact that I can understand what’s being said (which is novel in itself), I get to see the insides of local communities, both rural and urban.

One Sunday, we went to mass in a suburb of Minneapolis. There, rather than build a scattering of churches in each burb, they built one big church to seat everyone. St Ambrose opened its doors to parishioners in 2000 and is big enough to hold 2500 or so.

Back in 1915, Saint Ambrose Catholic Church was a red-brick church on Payne Avenue in St Paul, in the largely Italian Railroad Island parish. In 1957, it moved to a new stone church on the corner of Burr Street and Minnehaha Avenue where it continues to grow. But in the 1980s, when many of the city’s residents moved out to the burbs, numbers began to fall off.

While inner-city numbers dwindled, the city of Woodbury was expanding at a rapid rate. St Croix Valley was soon in dire need of a big church to house its faithful.  Father Pingatore, who had been in place since 1957, saw the writing on the wall and suggested that

Saint Ambrose Catholic Church lend its name and assets to a new Catholic church, school and Early Childhood Education Center, founded to serve the greater Woodbury area. 

And it’s been growing ever since. I was quite amazed at the number of people of all ages at the first mass on Sunday morning. The 50+ strong choir was in fine voice, too. And the crucifix seemingly hanging in thin air was mesmerising. I was a little taken aback though when the deacon called for a community blessing on three lay ministers stepping down from their posts. That was new to me – but I’d see it again. Something about the outstretched hands didn’t settle well with me – a reminder that our perceptions are very much our reality.

As I read the parish bulletin, I was gobsmacked to see the amount of money collected each week – nearly $20 000. Churches in the States are well-funded and very community-oriented, unlike their sisters in Ireland.

I wondered who St Ambrose was – he’s a saint I’d not come across before.

St. Ambrose was born around the year 340 in Trier, Germany. In the year 374, at the age of 34, he was baptized and consecrated as bishop of Milan, Italy, giving away his wealth to the church and to the poor as an example to others. Though he came from a career in politics as a popular governor of the area, he took very seriously his election to the role of bishop. […]  [The] patron saint of learning, school children and students […] he was also known as the “Honey-Tongued Doctor” because of his speaking and preaching ability – “smooth as honey” – which led to his designation as patron saint of beekeepers and bees. [He] was also instrumental in converting his friend St. Augustine to Catholicism.

Mass in St Rose in Longview, Washington was quite different. One of four churches in the area that together receive similar figures in the collections each week, it’s a different model. It wasn’t nearly as big or as full or even as diverse. There were relatively few young people present, something that always saddens me. It’s history though, was even more interesting.

Until 1910, with the establishment of St. Mary’s parish in Kelso, the Catholic population of the lower Cowlitz area was served by visiting priests, arriving by horseback, or by sternwheelers on the Cowlitz and/or Columbia Rivers; but mostly by priests just passing through. Masses were celebrated in homes and later, occasionally, in an abandoned Methodist Church.

When the city of Longview was established in 1923, it would take just five years for enough Catholics to move into the area to warrant a church. Four additional mission churches were attached to it (Castle Rock, Kalama, Woodland, and Cathlamet). St Rose was run by the Franciscans until 1948 when the Jesuits took over.

But who was St Rose de Viterbo? Another new one on me.

St. Rose was born in Viterbo (present day Italy) around 1233 C.E. […] At the age of 10, the Blessed Virgin Mary was said to have told Rose to join the Third Order of St. Francis (a Franciscan lay order).  At the age of 15, Rose tried to enter the monastery of the Poor Clares but was turned away. […] On December 5, 1250, she foretold the death of the emperor which was fulfilled 8 days later on December 13. According to surviving evidence, Rose went to the city of Vitorchiano which was possessed by a sorceress. She not only converted the whole town, but the sorceress herself when she stood unharmed on a burning pyre for three hours.  The last prophecy she made was after she was once again turned away from entering the Poor Clares because she didn’t have the dowry to enter. She said that she would enter there not in this life after her death.

Wow. Twice refused by the Poor Clares! When the MMM refused my application saying I need to go experience the world first and then come back to them (I never did) I was upset. I can’t imagine how she felt.

On March 6,1251, Rose passed into the next life […]. And as she foretold, in 1257, Pope Alexander IV ordered for Rose’s body to be exhumed and reburied within the monastery she so desired to enter. The Pope even had the monastery renamed after her. 200 years later, Pope Innocent IV canonised Rose as a saint. Her feast day is on September 4, the day in which her relics (her body) were transferred to the Monastery of St. Damian. The little saint still rests there today. Her body is incorrupt meaning that it has not taken on the normal processes of bodily decomposition.  

I’d heard that the PP was a young guy, described a Dougie Howser type, young enough to give the older parishioners hope that their offspring might go to mass more often. I was looking forward to hearing how he preached. But my anticipation was short-lived. The new Archbishop of the Seattle Diocese had picked that Sunday to visit. And disappointingly, he missed the opportunity to give us something concrete to take home. Even worse, he spoke of Catholics being the chosen ones … an unfortunate phrase to use given Mr T’s recent proclamation.

This is why I go to Hungarian mass. I’m never disappointed in the sermons as I can’t understand them. It frustrates me to listen to homilies in English that speak in biblical terms and dissect the theology, instead of giving the congregation take-homes they can do to make their lives a little more Christian. Practical ideas – give to the homeless, talk to a neighbour, support a local soup kitchen, adopt a dog from the pound – lessons like these are sprinkled throughout the bible and yet our priests seem more focused on the esoteric. Is it any wonder that numbers are dwindling. God bless my dad who’s forever saying that all we need in a sermon is a three-minute lesson with one thing to ponder on for the week.

Still, though, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend these local masses. And after two weeks of travelling between four states, I’m even more grateful for those friends and family who opened their doors and took us in. Their generosity of spirit and their hospitality are heart-warming.

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