By Charles Hallman
As Father Jules Omalanga proceeded down the aisle at the close of the May 29 final mass at St. Philip Catholic Church, children stuck to his garments like Velcro. The emotions of children and adults alike ran high and deep inside the packed sanctuary over the final decree by Archbishop John Nienstedt to close the North Minneapolis church June 5 and merge with Ascension Church.
Adding to the frustration was an apparent racial division of the members. When the merger was formally announced in May, the 100-year-old “Polish” church — with nearly 70 percent of its members now French-speaking African immigrants — was told that only those members of Polish descent would go to Ascension. The Black members would go instead to another church in Fridley.
According to St. Philip member Julia Theisen, Archbishop Nienstedt ignored a petition submitted to him with around 300 signatures opposing the merger. She added that only those parishioners of Polish decent, which she claims total “fewer than 10 parishioners,” were officially counted as members.
“The rest of us are not counted as parishioners. The problem is that the community feels exceptionally segregated where they are sending our French-speaking African parishioners to another site, and the remaining parishioners go to Ascension,” Theisen said.
“There were about 250 households [at St. Philip], but a number of French-speaking Africans would worship there but were not registered parishioners,” explained Archdiocese Communications Director Dennis McGrath. He said that there was no intention to “segregate” or “not to treat [the African immigrants] as though they are second-class citizens of the church.”
McGrath added that there is a plan to establish a chaplaincy at St. William Church in Fridley, which is almost five miles away from St. Philip. “St. William’s already has Africans worshipping there,” he noted.
“It’s a mistake,” said Akpene Belinda Tossou. Her seven-year-old son Elvan was baptized at St. Philip, and both were upset with its closing. “They made their decision already before considering us,” said Tossou.
“They didn’t ask us anything. That’s so wrong. That’s racism. The [archbishop] is not supposed to do that. We’re not supposed to wake up one day and learn they are closing the church.”
“We want to be together,” added Akuni Agbelessessi, who said she has attended St. Philip for three years.
“There’s bound to be sorrow and some sadness, even some people who are miffed about it closing and moving because an attachment has been formed,” said McGrath, who strongly denied the racism claims. “I would think that this is particularly true for the African parishioners, who have made [St. Philip] their home away from home since they came to this country.
“He [Archbishop Nienstedt] is not racist,” McGrath insisted. “I’m sorry that they came away with that.”
The St. Philip-Ascension merger is part of the archdiocese’s reorganization plan that has 21 parishes slated to be merged with 14 other churches.
Responding to charges that the merger meetings were “clandestine,” McGrath said, “We had an overall committee that was composed of lay people and priests [from] the archdiocese and met for months. There were at least 55 public meetings where people could air their opinions. It would be impossible to execute a plan like this and have everybody happy.”
Father Jules, who since St. Philips’ closing has served as assistant chaplain at North Memorial, believes the church’s poor finances led to its closing. “I’m from the Congo,” he said, “and I came [to Minnesota] seven years [ago].
“Coming [to St. Philip] was very challenging. God helped us to do what we could do. We are very poor — not in spirit, but financially. We had nothing left in resources. That was tough for me as pastor to keep the door open for the last two years.”
Theisen said the closing of St. Philip has had a particularly adverse effect on the children. “They’re devastated. They participated in the Mass as servers, ushers, choirs and greeters. This is a child-focused community and parish, [and] our children have managed to integrate themselves. It doesn’t matter if they are of Polish descent, French-African descent, White children or Hispanic. They have managed to integrate themselves flawlessly, something that we adults often strive to do.”
“If they give us a little time, we could go out there and ask people to help us,” bemoaned Tossou, saying that the archdiocese did not give members such as herself more time to help solve the church’s poor finances.
Nonetheless, the merger stands as is. “The [St. Philip] parish has been shrinking because of demographics, finances, attendance at Mass, and there was no way it could be maintained and couldn’t be sustained,” said McGrath.
He believes St. William in Fridley “is the most logical place” to establish a new chaplaincy for the former African parishioners at St. Philip rather than at the newly merged Ascension Church. “But it’s premature to say it is going to happen there. The intent is to establish it there. Many of [the] Africans live in Fridley.”
It remains unclear why such arrangements were not made and discussed with the African parishioners prior to St. Philip’s closing.
An 18-year priest, Father Jules explained that he has no say on where his next assignment will be: “You are placed all your life, and you depend on where your bishop sends you.”
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