Church “Mass Mobs” Are Spreading Across the Nation

Michael F. McElroy for The New York Times
Michael F. McElroy for The New York Times

The glory days of Holy Ghost Church were years ago, when Catholics packed into the wooden pews, beneath a starry barrel-vaulted ceiling, listening to bells and kissing icons as priests in colorful robes intoned in ancient tongues the liturgies of a faraway land.

The congregation dwindled so much that in 2009 the church was closed, but on a bright Sunday this summer, Holy Ghost was alive again. Mary Matei, visiting from Knoxville, Tenn., snapped pictures on her iPhone as priests sang Mass, while Ann Cogar and Sue Koch, sisters from suburban Cleveland, admired stained glass windows and statuary.

They were taking part in a Mass mob — the latest trend in Rust Belt Catholicism — which is part heritage tour and part mixer (crudités in the fellowship hall followed the service). The movement is bringing thousands of suburban Catholics to visit the struggling, and in some cases closed, urban churches of their parents and grandparents. It is also attracting much-needed donations.

Named after flash mobs — spontaneous gatherings of crowds, often in a public place, to make an artistic or political statement — Mass mobs are spreading around the nation and taking church leaders by surprise. Fueled by social media, they are doing best around Lake Erie: In Detroit, nearly 2,000 people show up to visit churches that normally draw a fraction of that number; hundreds take part in Buffalo, where the movement began; and scores join the events here in Cleveland.

On the afternoon of the Mass mob at Holy Ghost, much of the city was watching a Cleveland Browns football game, which was blaring on the TV sets in the bars of the church’s gentrifying Tremont neighborhood.

But the worshipers fixed their eyes instead on an older kind of screen: a 24-foot-high, hand-carved Hungarian iconostasis, made of wood and gold, displaying recently restored icons. Behind the screen, and at times in front of them, priests in Eastern European vestments, including an eye-catching red and gold robe called a phelonion and a cylindrical black hat called a kalimavkion, celebrated a special Mass partly in sung Slavonic — a liturgical language used by some Eastern Catholic churches.

“It’s like walking back in history,” said Steven Kalas, 55, of Cleveland. “They’re so much more beautiful than the recent ones,” said Ms. Koch, 50, of nearby Medina, Ohio. And Marguerite Tetkowski, 56, of Cleveland, said with relief, “I was afraid it was going to be sold and converted into a bar.”

Mass mobs began last November in Buffalo, where Christopher Byrd, 47, was inspired by an initiative called a cash mob, which sought to support local small businesses by having groups of people patronize the same mom-and-pop shop on a particular day. Similarly, Mass mobs seek to draw large crowds to a single church in a demonstration of support for Catholicism and its most beautiful — and often needy — churches.

“There’s a generational disconnect between when these cities emptied out and got blighted, and the young people who want to rediscover these roots,” Mr. Byrd said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Michael Paulson

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