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New Orleans Fights To Save Churches

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New Orleans Fights To Save Churches

Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Fights To Save Churches

New Orleans Fights To Save Churches

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Many churches in New Orleans are slated to close not necessarily because of blighted areas but because congregations are shrinking. Some of the buildings are historic or simply beautiful and some communities are mobilizing to keep them open.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Across the U.S., the Catholic Church has been downsizing, closing churches in Boston, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and now New Orleans. By the end of the year, the archdiocese there will close or merge more than 30 of its parishes. Some of the reasons are the same as in the other states - the shortage of priests, shifting populations, financial troubles.

In New Orleans, there's also Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, the Catholic Church was left with a 100-million-dollar loss due to damages. Now, the archdiocese says all the parishes, even the healthy ones, have to take part in fixing the problems. As NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, some churches are fighting closure.

ANDREA HSU: It's a hot, sticky Saturday night at St. Henry's church in uptown New Orleans. Inside a cafeteria, a deacon is on stage, Deacon John Moore, that is, an R&B singer and native son of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

HSU: Clearly, this is not mass. It's a Catholic youth organization reunion band, and it's a fundraiser - $20 a ticket, with proceeds going to a canon defense fund. The fund was established by a group of St. Henry's parishioners who filed an appeal to keep their church open. It suffered little damage during Katrina, and parishioners are arguing that they can't be shut down just because there are problems elsewhere in the archdiocese.

The archdiocese says it doesn't make sense to have three parishes existing within blocks of each other. It's ordered St. Henry's and another uptown church to merge with the larger St. Stephen's.

Ms. RITA ROCQUEFORT(ph) (Parishioner): We're plenty worried.

HSU: Parishioner Rita Rocquefort says a lot of people won't go to St. Stephen's.

Ms. ROCQUEFORT: There's always been a rivalry. We were the little, poor parish and they were the big, rich parish. But I would go if I had to.

HSU: St. Henry's opened in 1856 for German immigrant laborers who wanted to celebrate mass in their own language. It's a small parish, even today. Robert Morton(ph) sits on the parish council.

Mr. ROBERT MORTON (St. Henry's Church Parish Council): You walk up to communion and that person who is giving you communion you probably know very personally. Part of the church, it's about community, and post-Katrina, we need to build community.

HSU: Morton says St. Henry's finances are strong. Its few hundred parishioners typically put two to three thousand dollars in the collection plate every weekend. And that, plus some rental income, more than cover the parish's costs. So he and others have proposed other options.

Mr. MORTON: Maybe we need to look at a way to use priests differently, use laity differently. We can find some volunteers and do a lot of good without just shutting the doors completely.

HSU: New Orleans' archbishop, Alfred Hughes, isn't wavering.

Archbishop ALFRED HUGHES (Diocese of New Orleans): I've tested with the Council of Deans, as late as this morning, the proposal, and they were unanimous in recommending to me, stay the course.

HSU: Hughes says they've identified signs of vitality for a church parish.

Archbishop HUGHES: And there were a number of those signs that they do not measure up to.

HSU: For instance, St. Henry's doesn't have a religious education program. Their school closed in the '70s. They have few young families. When the three parishes merge, Hughes says, they will be 1,000 strong and everyone will have more.

Archbishop HUGHES: They will be able to realize together what they could not individually.

(Soundbite of music)

HSU: Back at St. Henry's, pastoral council president Alden Hagedorn(ph) and his childhood friend, Tommy Ward(ph), are tearing up the stage as the Blues Brothers. They've got the black suits, the hats, the dark sunglasses, and a room full of dancing Catholics.

(Soundbite of music)

HSU: Backstage, just afterwards, a sweaty and breathless Hagedorn says, never mind what anyone says, this church is alive.

Mr. ALDEN HAGEDORN (President, St. Henry's Pastoral Council): You don't kill something that's alive. I mean, the Catholic Church has taken a stance - we don't do euthanasia to people who are dying. Well, you don't also pull the plug on someone who's living. Our plan is never to leave, and we're not going to.

HSU: In fact, St. Henry's mass may grow this coming Sunday. In an act of protest, parishioners from yet another church that's being closed, Blessed Sacrament, will join St. Henry's in worship rather than head to the church they're supposed to be merged with.

As for St. Henry's, the next step is an appeal to the Vatican. Their canon lawyer will be filing paperwork with Vatican courts in coming weeks.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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