Worshipers at St. Austin Catholic Church in north Minneapolis learned this month that their church would be closed — immediately.
It was the latest setback for a spunky church community that had taken its fight to avoid a church merger all the way to the Vatican.
St. Austin was among 21 churches the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced it would fold into 14 “receiving” parishes during a 2010 reorganization. It was merged into nearby St. Bridget parish, and religious services had been alternating between the two campuses since.
But that ended this month when the congregations voted that if only one church were to remain open, it would be St. Bridget. St. Austin skeptics claim the entire process was rigged. Proponents said no, the closing reflected the real challenges of operating two churches with limited money and members.
“It’s really sad,” said Gladys Wassing, an active member of the church for 50 years. “I converted to Catholicism at St. Austin. We raised our three kids there. And I worked at the church. It’s really hard to lose.”
Pastor Tom Santa of the St. Bridget parish acknowledged the emotional toll, including anger, that a church closing can take on its members.
“It’s not something anyone wants to do,” said Santa. “We had 200 people in attendance [at both churches] on Sundays. So they couldn’t survive alone.”
In the recent wave of Catholic church mergers, St. Austin exhibited a particularly strong independent streak. When the archdiocese announced the parish would be absorbed by St. Bridget in 2010, St. Austin appealed to both the archdiocese and the Vatican. The archdiocese denied the appeal. The Vatican, a year later, did the same.
But a vocal opposition has continued in the church to this day. Longtime member John Armstrong is among them. He charged it was a foregone conclusion that St. Austin’s would close.
“There’s an attitude that you can just take the faithful and stick them anywhere,” he said.
Jerie Greve also was angry. For decades, St. Austin members dutifully donated their time and money to keep the church in shape both physically and financially, with an eye to the future, she said. Now it feels as if it was all in vain.
“How can you take everything you worked for and give it to St. Bridget?” Greve asked.
With emotions sometimes running high, the merger of the two campuses occurred gingerly over the past seven years. Masses were celebrated alternately at St. Austin and St. Bridget.
Having several years to get to know folks at St. Bridget has been helpful, said Wassing. She’s among those who sadly accept the decision to close the church, which was approved by 57 percent of members who attended the decisionmaking meeting.
In a written statement, the archdiocese acknowledged the “sense of loss” at St. Austin. But “the current model of operating two campuses is unsustainable, considering the changing neighborhoods and demographic shifts in the area,” wrote the Rev. Michael Tix, vicar for clergy and parish services.
“The future of the St. Austin campus is unclear as parish leadership and parishioners explore options for the site,” Tix said.
The transition to finding a new use for the St. Austin church will be gradual, said Santa. For now, the church could be reopened for funerals or weddings when possible.
When “the situation is not as raw as it is at the moment,” Santa said, he’d like to see a celebration of St. Austin. For now, however, “there has to be some time for grieving.”