Hoisting red-and-white Polish flags and photos of Pope John Paul II, about 50 Roman Catholics gathered in the shadow of the St. Paul Cathedral Saturday morning.

They were protesting the decision by the leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to consolidate 21 parishes into 14, a move the leaders say was prompted by finances and demographics.

It was the first public pushback against the closing plan, featuring almost exclusively members of the Church of the Holy Cross, a northeast Minneapolis parish that has served Polish-Americans for 125 years, including with masses in Polish.

"We want to keep a church open that was built by our ancestors -- who took out mortgages to create it -- and now they're closing it without any input from us," said John Rymciewicz, a church member who drives to services there twice a week from his Hugo home.

He carried a sign saying, "Kowolo Polski Przyjdz Namz Pomoca" -- "Mother of Poland, Help Us to Keep the Church."

Protest organizer John Armstrong, a north Minneapolis resident who works for the State Department, rallied fellow protesters with a megaphone as they moved from the front steps of the cathedral to the archdiocese's administrative offices across the street.

"We want to be able to worship in our parish," he bellowed. "We love our parish. We love our church. This means liquidating Holy Cross. ..."

Suddenly, he was drowned out by the cathedral bells marking the quarter-hour.

"Can't compete with that," Armstrong said. "We're here because we're not being heard."

The archdiocese's response

Not true, said Dennis McGrath, the archdiocese's chief spokesman, who waded into the protest to defend decisionmaking by the church's hierarchy.

He said church officials held 150 meetings across the archdiocese to explain the plan, buttressed by months of studies and consultations with parish members.

"It had to change; the demographics have changed," McGrath said, referring to withering mass attendance, increasing expenses and a chronic shortage of priests.

Four parishes in the archdiocese -- Holy Cross and St. Phillip in Minneapolis, St. Andrew in St. Paul and St. Mary's in Rochester -- have appealed the decision to the Vatican.

Noting that other archdioceses across the country have gone through the same wrenching process, McGrath said the presence of six parishes in northeast Minneapolis "within five blocks of each other doesn't make any sense. We have to consolidate for efficiency."

Even though the Holy Cross parish will be merged with the St. Anthony of Padua parish a few blocks way, Polish-language masses will be retained, along with Holy Cross' Polish Sunday school, he said.

"It's not going to lose its name; it's not going to lose its identity," McGrath said.

'Totally wrong'

Still, he was scolded by Elizabeth Suszynski, who told him, "You're destroying our base, you're uprooting our children, you're diluting our Catholic faith. Please bring the archbishop here."

Archbishop John Nienstedt wasn't available Saturday, McGrath said.

"If he's a leader, he should be here with us," Suszynski replied.

A few feet away, northeast Minneapolis resident Anna Margl carried a sign that declared "Kochamy Swiety Krzyz" ("We love Holy Cross").

"This is totally wrong," said Margl, who emigrated from Poland in 1970 after spending her earliest years growing up in a town a few miles away from John Paul's church posting.

"To me, this is a piece of Poland," she said. "It's part of what we had to leave behind. It's the only really Polish place in the Twin Cities. I brought my faith from Poland, but if you want to lose a lot of Catholics, this is the last straw."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184