As a devoted Catholic of Hmong descent, Naokao Yang says he and other Hmong residents of the Twin Cities always appreciated having a church that they could call their own.
But on Saturday, Yang and fellow parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul learned it is on a list of 21 Catholic churches around the Twin Cities metro area that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis intend to close.
The move comes amid a drop in the number of priests, a decline in church attendance and an aging Catholic population that has migrated in large numbers to the suburbs.
St. Vincent de Paul, nestled in a quiet residential part of St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, is only about a mile from the much larger Cathedral of St. Paul, with which it shares a pastor. Now it will formally merge with the Cathedral parish.
Word of its likely closure had members of the small congregation with one Hmong-language Mass per weekend worried, Yang said Saturday.
"You can go anywhere to worship," said Yang, who emigrated to Minnesota from Laos in 1976. "But if you can be more centralized, that is fruitful to a group that shares a common background. People feel at home."
Many of the 213 parishes in the archdiocese won't see any change. Dozens will be formed into "clusters" of two or more congregations that will share priests and some staff and services. The plan to shut down 21 of them constitutes the largest reorganization in the archdiocese's 160-year history.
At a Saturday news conference, Father Peter Laird, vicar general of the archdiocese, said the church is responding to factors outside its control.
"Our giving has remained fairly constant. The difficulty is that costs have increased, and in some aspects our structures are becoming increasingly taxed," said Laird. "And they're not always in the right places, frankly, to where the need is."
Nearly one-third of weekly masses in the archdiocese are less than one-third full, according to the archdiocese.
Laird acknowledged that buildings can become fused with people's sense of faith, as they go through marriages, baptisms, and burials in the same place.
"But from the very first, it wasn't that way. The Lord would gather people in fields and on mountaintops. It's about those relationships," he said. "The work we have to do is helping everyone refocus on that truth. That it's ultimately about relationships, and the buildings are secondary."
Five churches will close in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and their congregations will be absorbed by others. Churches are also slated to close in St. Louis Park, South St. Paul, New Prague, Hugo and several smaller communities.
At Saturday evening mass, parishioners at St. Andrew's in St. Paul learned their parish would merge with another -- Maternity of the Blessed Virgin in St. Paul. Many said they weren't surprised by the announcement.
"We've seen the handwriting on the wall," said Sharon Malinoswski. "That's really sad to see happen. (There's) a lot of history here."
Malinowski said St. Andrew's congregation has dwindled over the last few years, as older parishioners die and younger members move to churches with more support for children. She said the decision to close the church is reasonable, in terms of the economics.
"But emotionally, I think it's hard for people to give up something that's a part of our life," she said. "We joined here after we got married, 27 years (ago)."
In one small area of northeast Minneapolis, three churches will be closed, with their congregations to be absorbed by a fourth church. Three of those churches already share a lead pastor, the Rev. Glen Jenson, who made the rounds Saturday night to notify parishioners.
Jenson tried to reassure parishioners at Church of the Holy Cross, a traditionally Polish congregation that still has one weekly Mass in Polish, that the archdiocese's decision didn't necessarily mean the church building would be closed down. Such decisions will be made in the coming months among members of the merging parishes, he said.
"It's not a funeral notice, got it?" Jenson told the congregation.
"I don't think anyone can respond with anything but sadness," said DeAnn Croatt, a parish council member at St. Benedict in rural New Prague, which will have its congregation folded into St. Wenceslaus inside New Prague's city limits.
Croatt and her husband have attended St. Benedict since 1978. She said parishioners at the church that dates to the 19th Century expected to hear details of the closure at Saturday night Mass. She said it was too early to speculate whether parishioners might pursue an appeals process established by the archdiocese.
St. Benedict has been without a pastor since its elderly priest died last January, Croatt said. It also has already been sharing resources with other Catholic churches in the area.
Father Laird co-chaired the 16-member task force that made the recommendations for restructuring. He said the closings and mergers will happen slowly over the next several years. Laird said he didn't know how much money the plan will save.
Several hundred people work in the churches that the archdiocese plans to close. Father Laird said he didn't know if they would keep their jobs.
The archdiocese also includes 98 Catholic schools. Laird said parishes must now reassess whether those schools will be sustainable. Depending on their findings, some schools may also face closure. But no decision will be announced before the end of the 2010-2011 school year.