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Catholic churches battle drop in attendance but Gainesville churches increase numbers
0827FATHER-ERIC-HILL
Eric Hill is pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch.

Being in the middle of the Bible belt means Christian churches of all denominations can be found on every corner of the city or on the outskirts of the rural county.

However, only two Catholic churches operate in Hall County: St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville and Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch. And both churches appear to be bucking a national trend.

In 2007, 23.9 percent of Americans identified as Catholic, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. By 2014, that share had fallen to 20.8 percent.

Those figures do not ring true for the two Catholic churches. According to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, the number of Catholics in the Gainesville area is estimated at 29,000. And it is increasing, said Jenny Miles, who works in planning and research at the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

“We have seen growth in the Catholic population over the last decade,” she said in an email to The Times.

Eric Hill, pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch, agreed.

“We are adding parishioners each week,” he said via email to The Times. “We are also in the midst of a major endeavor with ALPHA with some 4,000 members of the parish walking this journey this fall.”

The same cannot be said for some Catholic churches elsewhere. Connecticut showed the sharpest decline of Catholics with 10 percent in the United States.

However, at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, Stamford’s largest Catholic church, parish membership has increase by 6 percent in since 2013. Mass attendance at the church is up 10 percent.

Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni said the upward trend dates back at least 18 years.

The reason: community involvement.

“The days when you could just sit in the church and wait for people to walk in are gone,” DiGiovanni said. “Now we have to package a product and sell it, and our product is God.”

DiGiovanni is deeply involved in the life of his city, sitting on boards for local organizations like the Downtown Special Services District and the Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program.

“Priests these days need to be missionaries,” he said. “Everywhere I go, people want to talk to me about God. We’ve got to be there to have that conversation.”

However, Patrick Turner, of the Diocese of Bridgeport, said it is difficult to determine a specific cause for changes in church attendance.

“Changes in pastors, changes in Mass schedule, incomplete record keeping, as well as changes in demographics, are all potential disruptions to the individual trends,” he said.

In Danbury, for example, a connection appears to exist between parishes that conduct Mass in multiple languages and a sharp increase in attendance since 2011.

St. Peter, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Immaculate Heart of Mary churches in that city all showed increases in attendance from 2011 to 2015, according to the Diocese of Bridgeport. All other churches in the 16-parish region in northern Fairfield County showed a decline in Mass attendance.

What these three churches have in common is Mass is conducted not just in English, but Spanish or Portuguese, or both.

St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville offers Mass in three languages: English, Spanish and Vietnames, according to its website, www.saintmichael.cc. Prince of Peace conducts Mass in Spanish and English, according to its website, popcatholicchurch.org. Both churches use English and Spanish translations on their websites.

“We are actively working at reaching out and growing our parish family and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ,” Hill said. 

At St. Peter, which offers Mass in three languages, average weekly attendance increased 27 percent — to 1,854 in 2015 from 1,459 in 2011 — the largest surge of any parish in the region.

St. John’s in Stamford offers most of its services in English, with one Haitian Mass conducted in Creole French on Sunday evenings. Confession, however, is offered in six languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese.

At Holy Name of Jesus, where services are held in English and Polish, Mass attendance is up 18 percent in the past four years as the overall population of the parish dropped by nearly 1 percent.

Sacred Heart, which offers Masses in English, Spanish and Italian, has seen its congregation shrink in the past four years, but it has reported an increase of 35 percent in Mass attendance. That’s the greatest increase in the 13-parish Stamford area.

DiGiovanni attributes St. John’s steady attendance to “quality services” rather than the number of languages spoken.

“If you offer great sermons and meet people’s needs and expectations, you’ll have a better turnout,” he said. “We have a great classical choir, and we take time writing really meaningful homilies.”

St. Gabriel Parish, which doesn’t offer foreign-language services, had one of the largest increases in weekly Mass attendance over the past for years. The Rev. William M. Quinlan said it has to do with a 10-year beautification project his predecessor spearheaded. It was completed in 2014.

“Father Cyprian Lapastina took a church that looked rather like a gym and redecorated it to look like something entirely different,” he said.

Some of Lapastina’s remodeling included a decorative railing around the church’s sanctuary and a print of The Annunciation of Mary behind the altar.

“That’s the moment St. Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary, so that means something to us here,” Quinlan said.

The Pew Religious Landscapes Studies were conducted in 2007 and 2014 via telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans.

The study showed Catholicism is not the only major denomination to shrink in recent years. Americans identifying as adherents to one of the mainline Protestant denominations shrank by 3.4 percent from 2007 to 2014, and evangelical Protestants by just under 1 percent.

Christians overall decreased to 70.6 percent from 78.4 percent of the population, a net decline of 5 million people. The drop was visible across all demographic categories, including age, race, sex and educational level, but was particularly pronounced among younger age groups.

The Advocate in Stamford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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