How do you know when it’s time to change parishes? In my parents’ generation, parish boundaries were taken more seriously than they are today. If you lived in one area, you attended one parish; if you lived a couple blocks down, you attended the other. While each archdiocese still delineates parishes by neighborhood streets, it is not unusual for people to continue attending a parish even after they move out of the parish boundaries. I know more than a few families who drive past three or four Catholic churches on their way to their “home” parish. Parishes have different personalities, different styles of song, and different populations of people. While some people are fortunate enough to feel that their neighborhood parish fits them, others know that they may have to drive across town to be spiritually fed.
For the past fifteen years, Bill and I have been attending Ss. Peter and Paul parish, on the east side of Milwaukee. We started going there when we were just out of college, living in the neighborhood. Ss. Peter and Paul had a lively, young population, dynamic priests and a 7 p.m. Sunday Mass that allowed for sleeping in on Sunday mornings. We loved it. By the time we got married and bought a house, we already had a history at the parish, and saw no reason to stop attending there, even though our Glendale house wasn’t in the church’s neighborhood.
By the time Jacob was ready for school, we had been parish members at Ss. Peter and Paul about seven years. At the time, we were both lectors and Eucharistic ministers. I was in charge of a social justice program at the parish, and had started a children’s Liturgy of the Word ministry. While Peter and Paul had a parish school, we couldn’t quite justify the across-town drive when St. Monica, another Catholic school, was about five minutes from our house. Torn between sending Jacob to the much-closer St. Monica and wanting to continue our parish membership at Ss. Peter and Paul, we asked the pastors of each parish if we could have duel membership. They said yes. What followed was eight years of a very imperfect Catholic school and parish relationship for our family. Sending our sons to one Catholic school and attending Sunday Mass at another parish, made us feel somewhat disjointed. Sometimes we felt connected to both parishes, sometimes we felt out of step with each of the communities. One of the bonuses to sending a child to a Catholic school should be that the sense of community is continued beyond Friday’s final bell and into the weekend at Mass, fish fries, or parish picnics. We were missing out on this perk, and while we recognized that, there was too much we loved about Ss. Peter and Paul to close our membership there and move to our kids’ school parish on weekends. So we stayed at Ss. Peter and Paul.
Our adoption of Jamie complicated things further. We moved again, this time deeper into Glendale, farther from Ss. Peter and Paul. In addition, Jamie’s Puerto Rican heritage made us look at our family’s various environments from her perspective. Our neighborhood is mostly white. St. Monica School, where she would attend kindergarten, is mostly white. Ss. Peter and Paul has a sprinkling of racial diversity, but we had to admit, it too, is mostly white. When we received a call last summer that our foster daughter, T, who is African American, would be coming back, we were propelled into action. We needed our two youngest children to have a community to belong to where they would not be one of only a handful of minorities.
While I continued going to Ss. Peter and Paul each Sunday, Bill went in search of a parish that had a population of white, Puerto Rican and African American members, plus good music and a vibrant priest. I really didn’t think he’d find it, but he did.
We’ve been attending that parish-- St. Francis of Assisi, on 4th and Brown-- for over a year now. We walked in with our very diverse family and saw ourselves mirrored back in the diversity of the congregation. The music is primarily Gospel, which all our kids love because of the strong beat and easy-to-remember lyrics. Fr. Mike Bertram learned all our names the first Sunday and uses them when he gives us Communion. It’s a small parish, compared to either Ss. Peter and Paul or St. Monica, and incredibly welcoming. Our boys have often rung the church bells on Sunday, and the kids have brought up the gifts several times. Due to a 10-minute long Sign of Peace that allows for some chatting and introductions, we know about a dozen parishioners. While T has now moved back once again with her biological family, when she was with us, I noticed that African American members of the community made a special effort to seek her out at the Sign of Peace. One woman is translating from Spanish to English the story of Our Lady of Divine Providence, Puerto Rico’s patron saint, so that we can share it with Jamie. She recently
Our switch to St. Francis of Assisi from Ss. Peter and Paul is bittersweet. I like to think that we grew from young adults into full-fledged adults at Peter and Paul, and the readings, homilies and songs there helped to form us. We took to heart the preaching we heard at Ss. Peter and Paul about the call to live our faith, and signed up to be foster parents because of it. Ironically, it was the gift of faith that Ss. Peter and Paul gave us that compelled us eventually to move. I believe, however, that following the Gospel is supposed to keep us moving; it’s supposed to keep us searching. And as we consider signing our names as official parish members at St. Francis, and removing our names from the Ss. Peter and Paul roster, I can only look ahead, and wonder what other changes are in store.