A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Cool Cleveland about the closing of Historic St. Peter Church titled What Does It Mean to Lose Your Church?. I suppose this follow-up could have been called something like, “What Does It Mean to Be Part of a Breakaway Catholic Community?” but that seemed unwieldy.
Members of the former St. Peter Church have formed a legal entity, the Community of St. Peter (CSP), as a way to continue worshipping together and to continue the ministries of the former parish, which was closed in April as part of the diocese’s downsizing plan. After meeting in temporary digs at Cleveland State University for services that were more like prayer meetings, the community held the first mass at its new home at 7100 Euclid Avenue on August 15. The logistical heavy lifting—setting up CSP as a nonprofit, finding and leasing the new space, getting it renovated—was done by the former parish council, now the CSP board of trustees. The spiritual heavy lifting was done by the individual members of the community, as each person decided whether or not to continue to worship with the new community.
The new space is not sanctioned by the diocese. It’s not a parish. What it is depends on where you stand. It can be called courageous and inspiring. It can be called blasphemous and insulting. If you cruise around the Internet for a while, you’ll see it called both. It’s made national news, at least on the spiritual front, as a congregation that took to heart the message of the church closings: a church is not a building. The Community of St. Peter is not a building; it is a collection of people who have been fortunate enough to find other like-minded individuals with whom they choose to worship the Almighty. It just so happens that it’s a Catholic liturgy.
I knew that I missed the spiritual home I had found at the previous St. Peter Church, so I went to the first mass at the new space, not entirely sure what to expect. Some of the things that stand out in my memory:
- TV cameras and reporters (outside, thankfully, not inside)
- A high-ceiling, open worship space with skylights and modern lighting
- The candle wall sconces from the old church
- A hand-hewn baptismal font
- Baskets with small chunks of stone passed around just prior to the start of the mass
- A standing-room only crowd filled with familiar faces
The church service unfolded as it always did (except for the baskets of stones). The choir was in magnificent voice with flawless instrumental accompaniment. We heard the readings, we sang our hearts out, we heard the gospel reading. In his homily, Father Marrone told the origin of the small stones each of us held. They were glacial granite, chipped off during the creation of the baptismal font. Knowing that the stone in my hand was one small piece of something greater, something that had grown to be a thing of beauty, made me hold it a little bit tighter. The stones, he said, were a call to action to be living stones on which to build this new community.
As the mass progressed and communion approached, I had a sudden case of nerves. We were holding a Roman Catholic mass in an unsanctioned space in direct defiance of the bishop. Waiting for communion, I looked at Father Marrone and thought how courageous he was to risk his entire priestly career to be here with us. I looked at all the people around me, many with tears in their eyes as they took communion for the first time as part of this new community, and wondered which of them had agonized over this decision. Who might have had a falling out with a family member or a friend over whether to attend? Who almost didn’t come? And I looked at my own heart. I didn’t feel particularly brave. For a moment, everything I had learned throughout years of parochial school came flooding back, and I thought that I must be committing a horrible sin. But I took communion, and there were no lightning bolts, no thundering voice from above damning my soul. Just a small voice inside me that said: “This is what a church service should feel like.”
The community has about 350 registered members, which is about half the number of registered parishioners at the former church. Detractors would say this means that half of the former church members did the “right” thing and are now attending other (Catholic) churches. Given what St. Peter Church meant, it’s likely that some people are giving organized religion a break or are maybe giving the Unitarians or Episcopalians a try. Plus, it’s tough to calculate how many of the former parishioners actually attended on a regular basis and how many people are attending now but haven’t registered. All I know is, if you get to mass late, you may end up standing.
I spoke briefly with a woman last Sunday who was visiting CSP for the first time. She had been a parishioner at St. Adelbert’s, which was closed at the beginning of the summer. She referred to herself and others who visited from her old parish as “Roamin’ Catholics.” They are displaced worshippers, looking for a new spiritual home. I don’t know if they’ll become part of the Community of St. Peter or not—each individual must make that decision on her or his own. But the community is there for them if they choose.
Look, I’ve never been particularly religious, and yet I find myself drawn to church at the Community of St. Peter and feel compelled to write about it. It fills a space in my spiritual life, and empirical evidence suggests that it fills a space in the spiritual lives of a few hundred other people as well. With an estimated 1.1 billion followers of the Catholic church worldwide, what difference do three or four hundred souls celebrating the mass with reverence and joy make?
Quite a big one, it seems.
The Community of St. Peter celebrates weekly mass at 11AM on Sundays at 7100 Euclid Avenue.