Built By Immigrants, U.S. Catholic Churches Bolstered By Them Once Again About 40 percent of U.S. Catholics are foreign-born or the children of immigrants. The change is having profound effects, from reviving dying parishes to shifting the church's geographical center.
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Built By Immigrants, U.S. Catholic Churches Bolstered By Them Once Again

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Built By Immigrants, U.S. Catholic Churches Bolstered By Them Once Again

Built By Immigrants, U.S. Catholic Churches Bolstered By Them Once Again

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When Pope Francis visits the U.S. this month, he's expected to speak frankly about immigration reform. He has asked to meet personally with immigrants in New York and Philadelphia, and there's a reason for that. The U.S. Catholic Church needs immigrants. More than a quarter of today's believers in the U.S. were born outside of the country. Fifteen percent are children of immigrants. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Fifth Street in north Philadelphia is and always has been a working-class corridor. St. Helena Catholic Church, at the corner with Godfrey Avenue, is a massive, no-nonsense, granite square. The steps out front are in need of repair.

MARIE ALBERT: That building was the original church, and the school was on the next two floors.

GJELTEN: Eighty-four-year-old Sister Marie Albert got her Catholic primary education here back when this was an all-white immigrant community.

ALBERT: When I grew up, I mean, everybody on this street were Catholic, you know (laughter). There were very few kids who didn't come here to school. When the parish started, it was German and Irish.

GJELTEN: Fifth Street is still largely a newcomer neighborhood, but St. Helena now serves Hispanics, Asians and Africans.

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GARDY VILLARSON: May Almighty God have mercy on us. Forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: Amen.

VILLARSON: Lord, have mercy.

GJELTEN: Presiding at mass on this weekday morning at St. Helena is Father Gardy Villarson. He's from Haiti. Most of the hundred or so worshipers attending today are Hispanic or Asian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLARSON: Let us pray...

GJELTEN: About 200 Vietnamese families worship at this church. The singing of the liturgy this morning is led by a 13-year-old Vietnamese-American boy, Adrian Pham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIAN PHAM: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: (Singing) Hallelujah.

GJELTEN: Only a handful of U.S.-born white parishioners are in hand. Across the northeast United States, many of the Catholic parishes established years ago by European immigrants have closed because of declining membership. For a while, it appeared St. Helena might join them. Mary Black has been a member here for more than 40 years, from when it was packed every Sunday with people like herself to when it started to empty out.

MARY BLACK: I remember one day sitting in church and feeling, like, the void of lots of people moving out and that scary feeling of transition, like, what's going to happen? And then, they came.

GJELTEN: Masses in Vietnamese and Spanish were added to the schedule. The number of worshipers grew. The parish survived.

BLACK: I really think this church would be shuttered if it wasn't for the Vietnamese community and other immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH TRINH: (Speaking Vietnamese).

GJELTEN: Eight men from the committee that plans Vietnamese activities at St. Helena opened this evening meeting with a prayer. They're led by Father Joseph Trinh, the senior priest at the church and president of the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics in the United States. They're here to discuss the pope's visit to Philadelphia and how to handle all the Vietnamese Catholics coming to see him. But these men also show up at the church whenever volunteers are needed. Dave Nguyen says he knows St. Helena was built decades ago by European immigrants, but he says it's now up to new Americans like himself to maintain the parish. The old ones are mostly gone.

DAVE NGUYEN: They left behind, and we are immigrant, Vietnamese and Hispanics, Africa or Jamaica. It's everybody here. We do not have the opportunity to build the church, but we have the opportunity to upkeep the church.

GJELTEN: The immigrant influx nationwide has revitalized Catholic churches in particular. Mostly it's Hispanics, but Asians are moving up fast. William D'Antonio is a professor of sociology at Catholic University.

WILLIAM D'ANTONIO: We're in the twilight of the white ethnic European Catholic Church.

GJELTEN: No wonder the Catholic Church today is a big supporter of immigration reform. Immigrants are the church's future.

D'ANTONIO: Within 40 years, this will be such a colorful church. We could be a model for the world of how Catholics from all over know how to live together.

GJELTEN: In fact, newly intermingling cultures can bring conflict. But at St. Helena, Mary Black and other longtime parishioners say that as they get to know these immigrant newcomers, they appreciate what they bring to the congregation.

BLACK: The warmth of the Spanish people to me is so heartfelt. The devoutness of the Vietnamese always inspires me. The folks that come from Africa with their dress of - I forget what they're called, but Indians that come in saris, it's just an amazing experience.

GJELTEN: Mary's friend Anita Repsch, a St. Helena member for 58 years, often attends mass with her immigrant friends.

ANITA REPSCH: We go to a mass that's Spanish or Vietnamese. And because our mass is so structured, we can follow it and know what's happening. It doesn't have to be in our language. Basically, we can pray together no matter what language.

GJELTEN: We can pray together, what longtime St. Helena parishioners have learned and exactly what Pope Francis, the first from Latin America, wants to promote when he visits this country later this month. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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