For 40 years, St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Minneapolis has been a font of Christian compassion, service to the suffering and help to the poor.

Those good works will continue. But many of the good people who contributed their time, talents and resources to the $3 million-a-year social outreach of a historic, 119-year-old inner-city parish will not.

They will be without their worship home at St. Stephen's.

Exiles in their own parish, 100 or more members of the St. Stephen's community plan to march this morning from the church to a new home five blocks away, where they hope to continue the informal and spiritually arousing service that drew them to St. Stephen's in the first place.

You know the kind of service: with guitars, lay people giving homilies, dancing in the aisles with people who have mental and physical disabilities, gay couples openly participating in worship, along with ex-priests, ex-nuns and sundry other spiritual wanderers.

It's all so 1960s. The new church is more like the 1860s.

The 9 a.m. English-language pray- er service, believed to have begun in 1968, has been shut down by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has moved in recent years to bring all of its 219 parishes into conformity.

"They all have to play with the same playbook," says Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese. "They've had plenty of warnings to get their act together."

The "playbook" is the GIRM -- "General Instructions of the Roman Missal" -- which spells out the rubrics for worship services. After the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the orthodoxies loosened and churches, especially ones in needy neighborhoods like St. Stephen's, put more emphasis on carrying out the message of the Gospels than following the rubrics.

The 9 a.m. service in the school gym (there's also a 9 a.m. Spanish-language mass in the church sanctuary) became a place where all were welcomed, the wording of prayers was changed to make them inclusive ("Our Father and Mother, Who Art in Heaven," for example), women had leadership roles in services, and simple ceramics were used instead of chalices of precious metal, as called for in the rubrics.

The parish is getting a new pastor next month (it has had only part-time clergy), and McGrath says the archdiocese wanted to get things "straightened out" before the Rev. Joseph Williams arrives.

But similar changes are taking place across the archdiocese, which is getting new, conservative leadership from Co-adjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt, who will shortly succeed Archbishop Harry Flynn.

The changes have caused pain in St. Stephen's, at 2211 Clinton Av. S. in the Whittier neighborhood, near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

"How can it have been OK for 40 years -- even been encouraged because of the work we do -- and not be OK anymore?" asks Eileen Smith, a parishioner from St. Louis Park, who has been active in fundraising for St. Stephen's and thinks of the prayer service as her spiritual home. "They should hold us up as a model of service. Instead, they are giving us the boot."

"It's incredibly sad," says Mary Condon Peters of Golden Valley, who has belonged to St. Stephen's for 16 years and served on its parish council. "All these years, there was room in the big old Catholic tent for all of us. And now there isn't. And they gave us three weeks' notice."

It was on Feb. 5 that Flynn met with parish representatives and instructed them that the 9 a.m. prayer service must end. McGrath says that "nothing of substance" will change, and that the parish outreach to the poor, the homeless and the Hispanic community will go on.

So will support of those ministries by the St. Stephen's members who will march to a new prayer home today.

The last service was held last Sunday. About 200 people attended, many crying throughout the service, which ended with a tear-stained but joyful singing of "We Are Marching in the Light of God."

Today, they will march again. This time, to Park Avenue.

After gathering at the usual time at the school gym, many parishioners who considered the 9 a.m. prayer service the center of a rich faith experience will say a last prayer on the steps and then head five blocks east, exiles in the desert, to 2120 Park Av., where they plan to continue the Sunday prayer meetings that brought them together.

"We are supposed to learn how to 'pray right' or go away," Peters says. "Well, we are going to pray the way we think is right. And we are going to go away. With great sadness. But we will still pray."

Nick Coleman •