Rural churches search for their place in a changing world

Parishioners gather in a church.
In a July 20 photo, parishioners gather for Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Rollingstone, Minn., which celebrated its 150th birthday in June.
Madeline Heim | The Winona Daily News via AP

After a few days of sweltering heat broke with an afternoon storm, the bells rang at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Rollingstone, Minn. as parishioners passed through its doors for Saturday mass.

Formed by immigrants of Luxembourg who settled in the area, the church recently celebrated its 150th birthday in June. The roughly 400-member congregation — of which about 100 show up for the weekend service and a quarter of that for daily mass — is proud of the community that fills the pews, from the littlest squirming child to the gray-haired old guard.

The congregation cracked their hymnals inside the sanctuary and fixed their attention on Tammy Schmit, who opened her mouth and began to lead them in song.

"I don't sing karaoke, I don't go to the bar and sing," said Schmit, who has been a cantor at Holy Trinity since she was 17. "But when I look out to the people and they're all singing with me . . . it makes me feel good."

Like many who attend Holy Trinity, Schmit has a long history with the church. It's where her parents were married, where she received her First Communion, where she and her husband, Mark, held their wedding and where her two sons, now 19 and 25, were baptized.

It's a family.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"I can't imagine going anywhere else," she told Winona Daily News .

The sentiment is true at so many of the rural churches that dot the bluffs, valleys and rolling farmland around this stretch of the Mississippi River, many of whom have congregations even smaller than Holy Trinity. People like to worship with friends, to show up to a place that misses them when they're gone.

As much as the churches serve as a cornerstone of their community, however, the world around them is changing. Family farms are less viable, people leave the rural town they grew up in for an urban center and attitudes toward religion have shifted, presenting churches with new challenges as they define themselves and their futures.

In Rollingstone, the population has dropped from close to 800 in 2000 to 664 in 2017, according to U.S. census data. Their community school closed last year, they lost a local bar and they'll soon be losing a bank. Though fewer are Catholic today than when she was growing up, Schmit said, the church still acts as a gathering place for a little town that doesn't have a lot.

Still, always lurking is the specter of "oratory status," a classification meaning the church is locked up during the week and has no regular priest.

"The fear of that is always on my mind," said 89-year-old Steve Rader, who was born and raised in Rollingstone. "If we ever lose this church, we'll never see another one."

The Diocese of Winona-Rochester conducts a sweep of its parishes every five to 10 years to assess whether oratory status is needed, according to Father Chinnappa Pothireddy, who has presided over the Rollingstone congregation for the past two years after moving to the U.S. from India.

Holy Trinity will stay open, he said, but the two other parishes for which he preaches — St. Mary Church in Minneiska and St. Paul Church in Minnesota City — will enter into oratory status in a few years.

"We have less baptisms and more funerals," Pothireddy said. "It's not a decrease in faith. People have faith."

If not a decrease in faith, then perhaps the role faith plays in society that is changing, said Pastor Greg Ferriss, who leads St. John's United Church of Christ in Fountain City, Wisconsin.

Ferriss's congregation is about 200 members that he has led for the past decade, though the church itself was founded in the late 1800s. It's a mix of older folks and younger families, and many have returned to church as a different season in their life begins: a retirement, a child being born or one going off to college, for example.

"A lot of people used to go to church because everyone did," Ferriss said. "Most people sitting in my pews now, generally speaking, have some real faith questions that they want to play with, as opposed to, 'I can get on the PTA if I'm here.'"