Many bowlers say a little prayer when they face a 5-7 split, but the practice is particularly fitting at the St. Francis Bowling Center in St. Paul. That's because the six-lane facility is run by a church.

"We used to be very cautious about our language" in deference to their location, Jan Cirhan said of the four-letter words that some bowlers -- never her, she insists -- are known to use when they miss a shot. Then Cirhan, 73, who has been bowling there for 35 years, added, "But after a while, you forget."

When St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church installed the lanes in its adjacent elementary school in 1949, it wasn't unusual for churches, especially those in working-class neighborhoods, to have their own alleys. Churches served as social gathering spots, and bowling was a popular endeavor.

These days, most church bowling alleys have gone the way of bebop, Erector Sets and radio serials. But two still operate in St. Paul: the six lanes at St. Francis and an eight-lane alley at the Church of St. Bernard.

The fact that both of them are Catholic is a coincidence. The church bowling fad crossed denominational lines, and you still can find them in a Lutheran church in Illinois, a Baptist church in Wisconsin and a Unitarian Universalist church in Connecticut. Membership in the churches is not a prerequisite for bowling there.

"We don't have all the bells and whistles" of the modern-day bowling centers, admitted Jim Widerski, who has been managing the St. Francis bowling center for at least 10 years.

But they don't lack for loyal customers. They're extremely popular for children's parties -- it's not unusual for Widerski, with help from his wife, Sue, to spend 12 to 14 hours on the job on a Saturday with a new party starting every 2 1/2 to three hours -- and they host leagues, including a Thursday evening women's league that has been around as long as Cirhan can remember.

Church basement ladies

When Margaret Burton was recruited for the St. Francis league three years ago by her sister-in-law, "I said, 'It's in a church basement? You've got to be kidding,'" she recalled.

It does take some getting used to, said Annette Ukar, a member of the league for four years. Because the church lanes are tucked into basements, space is at a premium. The ceilings are low and walls are close.

At St. Francis, the ball returns are next to each other -- a carryover from when the balls were sent back by hand -- rather than being placed every other lane, the way bowlers typically find them. Because Ukar was missing the reference points provided by a standard ball return, at first she had trouble figuring out where to start on the approach, the area where the bowler strides forward and releases the ball. And she kept forgetting that she had to wait for people in the other lanes to bowl before crossing their approach areas to get to the ball return.

"That first year, people were getting mad at me all the time because I kept cutting in front of them," she said. "It's very different, but it's a lot of fun."

While modern bowling alleys use synthetic lanes, the church bowling alleys still have their original wooden ones. That requires a little additional bowling expertise because the "bite" of a spinning ball on wood varies with the heat and humidity, changing the arc of its curve.

"These lanes have been here for 150 years," Burton good-naturedly grumbled to her teammates after her attempt to pick up a spare curved a fraction of a second too soon and skidded just to the side of the target pin.

The St. Francis center has automatic scoring machines, something of a luxury in church bowling. "We don't have a call button" to summon assistance if something misfires, like a ball getting stuck, but the place is so small that "we don't need one," said Cirhan. "We just yell: Jim!"

Bowlers are welcome to bring in their own food. "A lot of people bring in Crock-Pots or order delivery pizza," Widerski said. There is a concession stand, where the most expensive thing is nachos and cheese at $1.50. "That's because we recently had to raise the prices," he said with a tinge of apology. "All we're trying to do is break even."

St. Bernard's lanes are in the basement of its high school. The alleys no longer host leagues, but they are open for private parties, and business is brisk, a church spokesperson said. They've recently added cosmic bowling and a video game arcade.

The church alleys' limited size can be an advantage in booking parties, especially for younger kids. "It's private; they don't have to worry about disturbing other people or worry about kids running off someplace where their parents can't see them," Sue Widerski said. "We've had as many as 60 kids in here,"

Even before the question could be asked, she added: "Yes, we have earplugs."

How long church bowling alleys will be around is anyone's guess, but there is a new generation of devotees on the horizon, including Michelle Davis, who at 24 is the youngest member of the St. Francis Thursday night league.

"I'm a rookie," said Davis, who joined last year at the urging of her mother and two aunts, all of whom are in the league. "We laugh and have fun."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392