Doin’ the Uptown Low Down? – On the Great Migration of Catholics in this Land and What it Means for Parishes

The cities of the Northeast and upper Midwest were once teeming with Catholics. The city centers featured many and thriving Catholic parishes of various ethnic derivations. Catholics were uptown, down town and all around town. Some of the blocks in the older Chicago neighborhoods would even feature several parishes: there was the Polish Parish, the Irish, the German, and Italian, each of them little cities within themselves. Consider a description of old Chicago and other Catholic cities of the Northeast, by John McGreevy in his Book, Parish Boundaries which I summarize:

Virtually all the Catholic immigrant groups were within two generations of immigration, and all placed enormous financial, social, and cultural weight on the parish church as an organizer of local life. A Detroit study found 70% of Catholics claiming to attend services once a week, as opposed to 33% of the city’s white Protestants, and 12% of the city’s Jews….

The Catholic churches whether they were Polish, Italian, Portuguese, or Irish, simply dominated the life and activities of the community. The Catholic world, supervised by priests was disciplined and local. Many parishes sponsored enormous neighborhood carnivals each year (with local politicians making appearances and local businesses donating supplies).

Most parishes also  contained a large number of formal organizations – including youth groups, mother’s clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations – each with a priest moderator, the requisite fundraisers and group masses. Parish sports teams for even the youngest boys shaped parish identity, with fierce rivalries developing in Catholic sports leagues.

The dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities included a church (often of remarkable scale), a parochial school, a convent, a rectory and often ancillary gymnasiums  or auditoriums.  Even hostile observers professed admiration for the marvelous organization and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church. [e.g. Holy Family Church in Chicago with its massive school next door, more buildings are behind].

Brooklyn alone contained on hundred and twenty-nine parishes and over one hundred Catholic elementary schools. In New York city more generally forty-five orders of religious men lived. Nuns managed twenty-five hospitals…schools enrolled 214,000 students. This list of summer camps, colleges and universities , retreat centers, retirement homes, seminaries and orphanages was daunting.

For all Euro-American Catholic groups, neighborhood, parish, and religion were constantly intertwined…Small statues of Mary or local saints appeared in neighborhood yards, while crosses and religious artifacts decorated individual rooms. Catholic parishes routinely sponsored parades and processions through the streets of the parish.

Catholic leaders leaders deliberately created a Catholic counterpart for virtually every secular organization. The assumption was that the parish must make every effort to become the real center of attraction in the lives of the parishioners, it must become the hub around which a large number of their interests revolve. [McGreevy, pp. 13-28]

Decline – We are well aware and have discussed on this blog frequently that many of these once thriving centers of Catholicism are in decline. Parishes and schools are closing in large numbers. The dramatic decline in Mass attendance from numbers near or above 70% down to our current 27% is part of the explanation. But another part of the explanation in the migration of Catholics out of the cities and out of the Northeast.

The first of the great migrations took place after the Second World War when Catholic moved in large numbers to the newly created and growing suburbs. They moved from uptown and downtown to “out of town.” The once great churches of the city center grew gradually more empty and less vital.

The initial experience in the suburbs was similar: large parishes, large schools, large buildings, all packed to the gills,  and many activities. But suburban life was less tightly knit and ethnic ties were also being lost in those days in the great melting pot of the American experience. In a very subtle, but steady way, the cohesiveness of Catholics and parish life was becoming less a dominant force. Slowly Catholics ventured out of the Catholic “Ghetto” and sought wider connections and approval outside the Catholic world. The election of John F. Kennedy both symbolized and furthered this trend.

Then in successive waves, the sexual revolution, and the over all cultural revolution of the late 1960s caught Catholics and the Church unprepared. As secularism has grown and eroded the influence faith once had, even many of the flourishing suburban parishes of the post-war era are now much smaller and far less vital.

The second of the great migrations is occurring right now as Catholics, in large numbers, have left the “uptowns,”  “downtowns” and “just out of towns” of the northeast and are headed “low down” to the south, and the Southeast. A quote from a recent CARA blog illustrates this point:

[Consider that], in 2001, the Archdiocese of Atlanta had more than 320,000 Catholics, 131 active diocesan priests, and 77 parishes (note in 1991, the Archdiocese had 176,000 Catholics and 65 parishes). Moving a decade ahead, the diocese now has 900,000 Catholics, 141 active diocesan priests, and 87 parishes. Thus, the number of Catholics increased by 181% in the last decade but the number priests only increased by 8% and the number of parishes by 13%. This means the number of Catholics per parish in the Archdiocese has grown from 4,156 in 2001 to 10,345 in 2011. Ten new parishes have been added to accommodate 580,000 additional Catholics. [1]

Now that is remarkable growth. And many cities of the South and Southwest are having similar experiences. As can be seen, the growth is so remarkable and so quick that it is difficult to keep up. Due to a shortage of priests and other resources, the usual approach of southern and southwestern dioceses is to build large churches that can seat well over 1000 and establish what is, in effect a mega church.

I have celebrated masses in the deep south, in some of these parishes, and the experience is quite amazing. One parish near Jacksonville, Fla, where I celebrated one Sunday, seated over 2200. It was a tasteful, in fact a very beautiful Church, but it was big, with a fan shaped main floor and a spacious balcony ringing three sides. The place was packed that morning, with three other masses scheduled and a vigil the night before, all filled or at least well attended. Forty-eight extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion came forward to assist with the distribution. The parking lot outside featured shuttle buses to get the farthest parkers back and forth. The pastor explained that this was the trend in the south. With few priests, parishes have to built big to get as many Catholics in at one time as possible and keep the number of masses manageable for the priests.

At one level it  all seems very exciting to hear of booming Catholic Parishes that need parking shuttle buses. It reminds one of the massive and flourishing parishes that once filled the northeastern cities. But there are some concerns that go with these mega-parishes. It is articulated at the CARA blog:

[A] study, conducted by CARA, … finds that larger U.S. parishes tend to have lower rates of attendance, lower levels of sacramental activity per household, and less giving per registered household than what is reported in smaller parishes. [So], there appears to be a size limit at which the parish community begins to become less active and less giving. [2]

In other words, such parishes risk loosing personal contact with souls. And without personal contact and a sense of being an integral member of a community, it is easier for people to drift and fall away. Large numbers can hide steady erosion for a while but it would seem that the impersonal nature of large parishes allows the faithful to become disengaged. They can also hide behind the notion that “someone in this big parish will handle the trouble that the pastor is enunciating.” As impressive as large parishes are, it is clear from our experiences after the war, and now, that they can also become unraveled very quickly if no one feels essential.

The CARA blog concludes:

As we have shown in a previous post, there are not a lot of dioceses building new parishes in areas where the Catholic population moved and is growing strongly…..But a parish building boom will likely be needed in the U.S. Sun Belt in the 21st century….It may be time to ask, with great care as well, when and how do we open new parishes where they are needed? After moving, will Catholics always have a new Catholic home to “come home” to? [3]

I do not know what the perfect size for a parish is. And even if I say a number, vocations to the priesthood are simply going to be a factor. As for me, I have 900 registered families and about 550 on a Sunday morning. For me, this is a perfect number. It is large enough for us to be financially viable, indeed we do very well, money wise. It is also large enough that I can have a fairly diverse cadre of volunteers to accomplish needed tasks. Yet is small enough for one priest to handle and even can get to know many people well. It is small enough too that people know each other well and people are missed when the drift away. But this model cannot be sustained diocesan-wide. We just don’t have enough priests to staff enough parishes at this scale.

But, it would seem, that large parishes still need a small town feel and experience, according to the CARA study. It makes sense, otherwise, people get lost. So, small targeted groups that gather in large parishes are needed to provide the personal encounters so necessary in our Christian walk. Perhaps it is targeted Bible studies, fraternal organizations, mother’s groups, etc.

The great mega parishes of the 20th Century urban north had their day but collapsed quickly, for it would seem that their communal ties declined after the War, or were not as deep as they were thought to be. People left too quickly for us to conclude that urban and ethnic communities had ties that really bound them together after WWII. It would seem we were a 1000 miles wide, but only two inches thick. The large suburban parishes of the postwar suburban north and east have also struggled to keep Catholics tied in. Big looks great but it isn’t necessarily better. While it is true we cannot simply build lots of small parishes, we have to be creative and build communities within parishes wherein there is accountability and love, something personal and engaging, something which makes people experience that they are essential to the Lord and to the Church. Doin’ the uptown,  low down, may not be the dance we want to recreate as the Church spreads (low down) to the south.

I am interested in your thoughts, especially if you are member of a large Catholic Parish.

Photo Credits:

Holy Family Church (Upper Right) from the Archdiocese of Chicago Archive,
Lower Left, Our Lady Queen of the Universe, Orlando, from the Website.
Here are some fond remembrances of going to Catholic School in Chicago:

20 Replies to “Doin’ the Uptown Low Down? – On the Great Migration of Catholics in this Land and What it Means for Parishes”

  1. I love this video, Msgr. Pope! What memories, indeed! Chicago was my home, and I did attend Catholic schools. So glad I had the fantastic education depicted in some of these historic shots. One of the narrators, Fr. Arturo Perez, was a priest at Maternity B.V.M. School where I taught 5th grade in the late 70s. My daughter sort of went there, too, ’cause I was pregnant with her then! There is also a brief glimpse of a contemporary Pope John XXIII School uniform on one of the models. I taught there in the 80s and my daughter was a student there.

    It would be unrealistic to think such days could be restored. My childhood parish was quite large I’d say, because there were 1000 children in the parochial school when I was an elementary student. There were always 4 – 5 priests on the parish staff and more than 20 Dominican Sisters teaching in the school.

    I always felt at home in my parish. The parish, neighborhood, and my family were intertwined. I did witness the migration to the suburbs, but it was a long time happening before the parishes declined, as I recall.

    I definitely agree that there needs to be small communities of like-minded people within the larger parish structure. Youth, especially, need to feel welcomed and acknowledged. How to accomplish that, I don’t know.

    1. Does that photo of Holy Family include St. Ignatius College Prep. High School?

    2. Yes, thanks for these memories. It is amazing to think how many priests and sisters used to staff those old parish settings. It is a great sadness that it all declined so rapidly. You indicate a longer memory of the decline. I think one important and sad factor was race. There were some parishes in Chicago and other cities where neighborhoods shifted in a period of less than 5 years due to “white flight.” I also suspect that the dream of home ownership was a critical factor and many moved after WWII. Other ethnic communities lingered longer, as you described and some have remained in Chicago. Even to this day the some of the Polish neighborhoods still retain some of their old flavor.

  2. Well, we’re immigrating to the South (Charleston, SC) … in just a couple of days! Preparing for a long road trip and we’ll be listening to your CDs every day.

    Right now we belong to a parish with approximately 2,000 registered families, but I’d say attendance at Mass is about 500 or so, less on Sat. night. So I figure that perhaps half or third of the people come to Mass on a regular basis. And those of us who do begin to know each other because there is always coffee afterwards. We have many small group opportunities weekdays and nights as well — Bible study, book club, mother’s club, men’s spirituality, outreach, etc. etc. Father is involved but at the same time knows how to let his staff and volunteers take the ball and run with it. We are so very blessed.

  3. Epistle 214
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope talked about great migration of Catholics in this land and what it means for parishes.
    Secondly, now permit me to explain some matters to relate to the title of the homily hereafter:
    The title of the homily is “Doin’ the uptown low down? – On the great migration of Catholics in this land and what it means for parishes”.
    What is Doin’?
    The word Doin’ isn’t in English Dictionaries, but I think that Doin’ is “Doing” means deed.
    What is uptown?
    According to Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 5th Edition, if you go uptown, or go to a place uptown, you go away from the centre of a town or city towards the edge or suburb.
    What is “low down”?
    According to Msgr. Charles Pope, “low down” is that “spread” (to the south).
    Thus, “Doin’ the Uptown Low Down?” means “Doings the Uptown spread (to the south)?”
    However, in the title of the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope defined that “Doin’ the uptown low down?” is “the great migration of Catholics in this land and what it means for parishes”.
    Therefore, we don’t need to concern what “Doin’ the uptown low down?” is.
    For example, if a certain people sent to me an email, then I don’t need to concern who he is. My concern is that contents of the email.
    Other example, when I read an article as BBC’s article, I don’t concern who author of article is, I only concern contents of the article.
    But, in the special case, if I send to Msgr. Charles Pope an email, and I want Father recognizes that email is of mine, then I ought to write my password because Father has may my passwords.
    A further example, if a certain man wrote an anti-communist article and he was in the name of me to write, then can I be arrested by Vietnamese polices?./.

  4. I am a member of the largest Catholic parish in the South. My parish is St. Matthew’s in Charlotte, NC and we have 8500 registered families. It is both a blessing and a challenge. Many, if not most, of the people are transplanted from the upper midwest or northeast. Monsginor McSweeney, our pastor, does a fantastic job of managing this mega church. While one can feel overwhelmed, once you engage in some sort of service, this feeling disappears. Jesus did teach in mega style environment .. the feeding of the 5000 is just like our church.

  5. Msgr,

    You raise an interesting issue. I grew up in Southern California where the diocesan thinking was to spin off a new parish whenever one reached a certain size. I have always found the logic behind the practice somewhat elusive and very questionable.

    Two parishes, where I was music director over a period of years, stand out in my mind. One was actually subdivided four times to create smaller parishes for the “convenience of local residents”. The resources of the mother parish could no longer sustain the many programs and the new parishes simply never had enough available to start their own programs.

    The other parish had a rather dedicated pastor who found favor with the bishop. He managed to stave off several attempts to divide his vibrant parish and the result was an amazing community, ethnically diverse, socially active, and with a nave filled to capacity for each of the many masses. The ethnic factions within the parish each had a distinct flavor but they came together as a family to keep the church alive and well. The convent school and music programs flourished and the parish outreach was a cornerstone of the whole town. The parish also fostered a large number of vocations in both men and women.

    We are witnessing the other end of the pendulum swing. Parishes are closing and recombining, and yet the same mentality concerning “optimum size” still holds sway. There is an obvious lesson in there but it seems to be largely ignored.

      1. I’ve experienced some remarkable small parishes too. There seems to be a point where the larger size of a congregation (and, of course, its dedication) fosters greater programs. The cause of that is probably found simply in the abundance of available resources. Without sounding pedantic, the American church has not changed a whole lot from the days of the settlers when a priest was often taxed to his limits by having to fill the shoes worn by several clerics in larger urban parishes. The Medieval European model saw the cathedral as the center of worship and smaller parish churches were less the center of communal life.

        It simply seems odd to me that, in an era of plentiful transportation, we continue to spread our resources rather thinly. Great liturgy, great music, and great outreach programs simply call for great human resources. Most parishes do not have the resources to celebrate full, solemn, Missa Cantatas. We’ve lost a great deal of the majesty, mystery, and grandeur of the glory of God that those masses evoke. We’re far more likely to find “Jesus is my fwiend” in the local parish.

  6. I think it’s like others are saying, a blessing and a curse. One of the thing that has attracted so many Catholics to non-denominational and evangelical churches is the feeling of belonging. Many of these churches are big but they have managed to get people involved and have attracted many Catholics who many times don’t consciusly leave the Church. I’ve known people who go to Evangelical churches who are really Catholic in spirit. They just go there because they prefer the community. We Catholics need to learn how to act more like a community than a self-service sacrament drive-thru. All parishes should have small groups that meet to study the Bible and pray together. That’s how many Evangelical mega-churches try to get people involved. We Catholics are not used to doing things without a priest around, truth is we’re gonna have to get used to it unless we do a 180 and start having families again and actually supporting vocations.

    1. Yes, I think your point is well taken. I also agree we do have to find a way forward without there always being a dependent on there being a priest to convene it. There will be doctrinal concerns that may emerge in such a setting but we will have to do our best to monitor doctrinal consistency even while allowing smaller groups to flourish.

  7. I love the picture of The Shrine to Mary, Queen of the Universe! I would love to visit again if I ever get back to Florida!

  8. Regarding Alejandro’s comment about small groups – without necessarily having a priest involved — and your response about possible doctrinal concerns — this has been a problem for a while. Several small groups I have participated in have had lay leaders who propagated misinformation relative to Church teachings. One way to help this potential problem is for a parish to have a media library with CD and DVD series that are done by speakers who adhere to the Church’s teachings. They could be checked our to be used within families – and groups of families in neighborhoods – or by groups of couples or singles – or other shared interest groups – meeting perhaps in people’s homes close to where they live. As you and Father Barron have done, study guides for the various media provide the means for someone to facilitate the group without too much trouble. There are wonderful series available. Then if you have to have a huge church, there will be a way (in addition to other activities) to help people have a sense of fellowship – and an effective means of catechisis.

  9. I am a recent convert who attended a mega-church for several years. Believe me, it is quite difficult to foster a sense of community that approaches in any way what I experience at my current parish church. The quality of pastoral care with lay persons in charge is also questionable. I recall going to one of our pastors with a problem regarding one of our children. The pastor not only had no answer for us, but freely shared that he was having the same problem with his own child and had not been able to heal it!

    Another very common problem in our mega-church (which had inspiring praise and worship services) was the inability to foster community. There were a plethora of programs — for men, for women, for teens, for divorced, for unchurched, for addicts, and so on. However, most of them were not well attended (even though we had upwards of 25,000 attendees each week), and they were often shortlived, only to reappear again in the next round of trying to foster community.

    I am saddened that many dioceses are continuing down the path of the mega-church model. It is a Protestant phenomenon that has already shown its considerable shortcomings and is slowly being dropped by them. There are numerous books out there detailing the inherent problems.

    The priest shortage should not be considered a permanent problem, but a temporary one.

    In my opinion, the unique worship of Catholics, the mass, is being given less and less focus, with dire results.

    Regarding the feeding of the 5,000, I cannot imagine that we should be extrapolating some type of analogy between Jesus’ preaching to large groups on occasion with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Early this year I attended a mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. There were 10,000 people. While it was thrilling to see so many Catholics come together for mass, I can’t imagine it ever becoming a pastoral model for parish worship and pastoral care.

  10. The thoughts in this article were fascinating. I’ve been in many different parishes due to having to moving often (at least in the past). I’ve been in small parishes and city parishes. I can see problem with both. A parish that is too large can certainly make one feel like a number and I can see how “souls will fall through the cracks” so to speak. I can see how donations would drop or volunteerism drop (because people assume OTHERS are doing the work since it is such a large parish). Or they assume there are a lot of donations because “everyone else is giving the money”. In a small parish, however, you have issues of individual clashes, private “groups” and so forth. Sorta like high school with some adults clinging to “groups” but not really welcoming others into their little clans. You have people who might not be so Christian, gossiping about others (though I suppose this could happen in large parishes too, though probably not as likely since everyone doesn’t know each other that well). People seem to know more than they should about other people in small parishes.

    Personally I’ve preferred the middle ground. A parish not too small and not too large. Of course, that is probably the ideal and in most places there is never really the “ideal”.. at least not for long. I think it is very important for a pastor to know his “flock” well. He can help souls better that way.

  11. Wonderful article. It brought back many fond memories of growing up in Buffalo, NY and attending Nardin Academy. My dad, a firefighter, and my mom made many sacrifices so that my sister, Carolyn, an I could attend Nardin. Thanks mom and dad. Sincere and eternal gratitude, also, to the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. They not only provided a quality education, moreover, they formed us in our Catholic faith. They taught us the importance of love of God and family. They taught us to use our God-given gifts and talents wisely and well and instilled in us a desire to serve others. Again, thank you.
    Finally, a special acknowledgement to Miss Anita Baird, DHM who appears in this video.

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