Comforting each other with hugs as they wiped away tears, parishioners at north Minneapolis' Church of St. Philip, founded 100 years ago for Polish immigrants, celebrated their final mass Sunday.

"I just can't stop crying. It hurts so much," said Sharon Glover, who was among the 250 parishioners who stood outside the Roman Catholic church and watched its doors shuttered for good, their moods standing in sharp contrast to the bright, sunny day.

"I declare the church of St. Philip closed," the Rev. Dale Korogi said as congregants wept. The priest then led the group six blocks along Bryant Avenue N. to Church of the Ascension, with which St. Philip is merging because its congregation has shrunk so much that church leaders can't afford to keep it open. The solemn march was a foretaste of more goodbyes to come as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reorganizes amid tight budgets, shifting demographics and a projected shortage of priests.

Next to close will be St. Andrew in St. Paul, which will celebrate its final mass June 12 and merge with nearby Maternity of Mary. In all, 21 parishes are slated to fold into 14 "receiving" parishes as part of the reorganization plan. Of the 21, four parishes have appealed to the Vatican and await word on their fates.

Even for those not fighting mergers, they are painful. People become attached to their priest's preaching style, to the hymns they sing, to celebrating church feast days a certain way, even to their favorite pews. Dinners and other social events have been held to acclimate St. Andrew's parishioners to their new reality, said the Rev. Peter Williams, pastor for the merged parishes.

"There was a lot of raw emotion, a lot of grieving," he said. "There can be an awkward human quality to it because, remember ... the way this works in the Catholic Church is, they didn't, like, submit it to a vote -- 'do you want your church to close?'

"We're not necessarily happy about this. And that's OK. I've tried to respect that. People grieve in different ways and on different timetables."

The Rev. George Welzbacher is priest at the Church of St. John of St. Paul, where some congregants are appealing their merger with St. Pascal Baylon. "We do have a beautiful church, and in the merger, there would be very little if any use of our church building," he said. "I think people just feel sad. This beautiful building has many memories clinging to every part of it. They just felt, if there's anything we can do to delay it, let's do it."

Archdiocese pleased so far

Despite these challenges, archdiocese officials say they've been pleased with the reorganization. So far, at least one church, St. Benedict in New Prague, has closed. Four parish mergers were officially sanctioned by the archdiocese Jan. 1, with more expected in July. Barring successful appeals to the Vatican, all the mergers are projected to be complete by 2013, said Andrew Eisenzimmer, legal counsel for the archdiocese. Across the country, many dioceses are going through similar reorganizations, in some cases pushing parishioners to take drastic steps to keep their churches from closing. When the Boston archdiocese reorganized several years ago, some parishioners held 24-hour sit-ins in churches.

"From our standpoint, it's been a far smoother process than we anticipated," Eisenzimmer said. "When you saw what happened in other dioceses ... we certainly haven't seen that kind of action."

The next steps for St. Philip and St. Andrew involve working with real estate company Northmarq. Although neither church is on the market, Williams said there has been interest in St. Andrew's building from groups who want to use it for worship services. The archdiocese would have to approve any sale or lease and won't allow deals that would have churches end up as bars or the like.

Of the 21 churches slated to merge, six are in St. Paul and five in Minneapolis. The rest are in suburbs, exurbs or small towns. While the archdiocese has grown to nearly 800,000 members in the past decade, officials say a number of parishes and school buildings are grouped in areas where the population can no longer sustain more than one parish or school. The archdiocese also expects to have fewer priests eligible to serve by 2020.

The reorganization plan also looked at the viability of the archdiocese's schools; four are scheduled to close at the end of this school year. Beginning next fall, there will be 94 Catholic schools within the archdiocese with close to 30,000 students.

A decade of financial struggle

St. Philip's parish was not among the 21 parishes on the merger list, but the church told archdiocese officials last year that it couldn't financially sustain itself. Its congregation has dwindled to about 250 registered households. Because the church offered community outreach programs -- such as an after-school program and a monthly food shelf initiative -- the archdiocese wanted St. Philip to hang on as long as it could, said Nancy Meyer, the parish's finance committee chairwoman.

"It's been a decade of financial duress this community has struggled with," she said. "It's in a really impoverished neighborhood. There's a small group of people who attend church who live in the area. But most people are commuting from suburbs to attend the church."

Established in 1906, the church served Polish immigrants until the 1950s and now is home to mostly French-speaking immigrants from the Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria. That diversity is what kept Meyer, her husband and her daughter, 9, attending the past three years. For her, losing that is the hardest part.

"It's tragic, really tragic, because out of all the communities, this was the one that's really important to our future, embracing all people for who they are," Meyer said, breaking down in tears. "We're just a real eclectic group, and that's hard to find in Minnesota."

After St. Philip's procession, parishioners were welcomed by Ascension church leaders and congregants, who hosted an outdoor reception for them.

"The process of leave-taking is a difficult one, filled with grief," said Patty Stromen, parish administrator at Ascension. "It is so important that we honor and draw a fitting close to the rich legacy of St. Philip parish while at the same time looking forward to a future full of hope."

Rose French • 612-673-4352