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. 
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. 
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? 
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: