AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When Pope Francis comes to the U.S. this month, one of his stops will be a small Catholic school in New York City. The school used to have a sponsoring church. That Parish is now closed, like hundreds of others from Chicago to Boston. The Northeast and the Midwest were once drivers of the Catholic Church's growth in the U.S. But as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the church's presence in those regions has been shrinking.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: On Sunday morning, the church doors are locked up tight at Our Lady Queen of Angels. Cobwebs frame the rust-red doorways.
PATRICIA RODRIGUEZ: Lord have mercy.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Lord have mercy.
P. RODRIGUEZ: Christ have mercy.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Christ have mercy.
WANG: But just across this cul-de-sac in New York's East Harlem neighborhood, the weekly mass goes on.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).
MARGARITA BARADA: This is our church. We're surrounded by trees, by the birds, the sky and very good-natured people. So no one can drive us out of here.
WANG: Here is a corner of a park where 91-year-old Margarita Barada and a half dozen faithful now meet without a priest. New York's archdiocese shut down Our Lady Queen of Angels eight years ago. Seventy-five-year-old Zaida Rodriguez joined the group after organizing a funeral for a friend on the sidewalk because the church was closed.
ZAIDA RODRIGUEZ: That's how I got involved in this church because the truth is that my church is Holy Agony - was Holy Agony.
WANG: The archdiocese recently closed the Church of the Holy Agony a few blocks away.
Z. RODRIGUEZ: You rarely hear of a church opening, you know? It's all about church closings. And that's sad.
WANG: Patricia Rodriguez is 51. She was once led out of Our Lady Queen of Angels in handcuffs by the police after protesting its closing. Now she leads services every week outside the church. It's supposed to be our spiritual home. And so then where do you go?
WANG: That's a question facing many devoted Catholics across the Northeast and and the Midwest as the center of Catholic growth shifts towards the South and West. Since 1965, the number of Northeast parishes has dropped almost 19 percent, and the Midwest has lost more than 10 percent of its parishes.
That's according to NPR's analysis of data from Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Mary Gautier is a researcher there and studies Catholic demographic trends.
MARY GAUTIER: You have beautiful structures in New York and in Philadelphia and in Cleveland - all the urban areas that are - appear to be dying out. The population is decreasing. The people that are in the pews are old, elderly and not being replaced by younger generations.
WANG: At least not at the rate needed to fill the large gaps left by previous generations of Catholic immigrants from Europe. Thomas Rzeznik studies the history of the U.S. Catholic Church at Seton Hall University. He says church closings picked up in the 1970s when there were money problems at many urban parishes.
THOMAS RZEZNIK: The bishops and the diocese were accused of abandoning the inner-city and abandoning their mission.
WANG: So in more recent decades, Catholic leaders have sometimes closed financially stable churches with congregations that are getting older and smaller. Rzeznik says it's a way to funnel parishioners and resources to struggling parishes in low-income communities.
RZEZNIK: They were some of the last stable institutions in areas that were struggling to cope with the loss of jobs, disinvestment and political marginalization.
WANG: Rzeznik adds, closing a parish sometimes led to ending social services and schools.
JOANNE WALSH: All right, Kindergarten, you did such a great job today. Please listen.
WANG: But that's not the case back in East Harlem. Even though the church of Our Lady Queen of Angels closed eight years ago, its school has stayed open since 1892. A couple years ago, New York's archdiocese turned it over to a nonprofit group dedicated to Catholic education. Kathleen Porter-Magee oversees the school and five others as a superintendent of the partnership for inner-city education.
KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: The very real threat that if we don't do right by these communities and if we don't do right by our students, that we might not live on for another hundred years - I think that's forcing us to really do better and pushing us to excellence.
WANG: Thousands of Catholic schools in the Northeast and Midwest have closed over the past 50 years. But 33-year-old Jessica Salazar is counting on Our Lady Queen of Angels to succeed.
JESSICA SALAZAR: We have two daughters and a little 3-year-old that will be coming here too.
WANG: This month, Pope Francis is also expected to come to this school, where almost 70 percent of students receive scholarships.
SALAZAR: I'm very happy about those partnerships. And it's exciting for low-income families, for people that don't work because it helps us bring them to the private school.
WANG: And, Salazar says, it brings them closer to a Catholic way of life. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.