On Sunday, nearly 200 faithful – those old and new, and from near and afar – fought back tears as they sang hymns and received communion in their final Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
For this parish, the mood wasn’t somber. The choir, which was really a band, set a lively tempo just as they had been doing for years despite dwindling attendance at the red brick church on Irondale Street.
Sacred Heart is the second of two Elyria churches that is now closed under the massive restructuring plan by the Cleveland Diocese. The other is Holy Cross Church on West Avenue, which closed at the end of April. It is now mostly boarded up.
Bishop Richard Lennon, who officiated at the final Mass, called the experience bittersweet.
“There are many feelings and emotions, and more tend to be on the bitter side,” Lennon said during his sermon. “It’s hard to believe that a parish is coming to an end. We wonder why us and not someone else.”
As Sacred Heart parishioners consider finding a new place of worship, Lennon carried a consistent message from his reading: “Do not be afraid, just have faith.”
Lennon is performing the final Mass for any church that will close under the restructuring plan, which calls for the closing of nearly 30 churches and the merger of 41 more parishes with neighboring churches by June 2010.
For Sacred Heart, neighboring churches left intact are St. Mary, St. Jude and St. Agnes.
Carol Bryson, a Sacred Heart member for at least 20 years, said she’s uncertain about where she’ll go to worship. She came to the final Mass with her mother, but her husband, Doyle, stayed home because the emotion was too much for him to bear. He was always known as the “sucker man” because he brought suckers and candy to the kids each Sunday.
Mary Ann Dzurec, who lives with her family in Avon Lake but had still been attending Sacred Heart, represents the Hungarian and eastern European heritage that founded the church in 1929. Her parents emigrated from Europe and were married at Sacred Heart. Most of her family spoke Hungarian.
Dzurec and her husband also were married there, and her son was baptized there.
When her mother died suddenly in 1992, Dzurec said the entire church showed up for the funeral Mass.
Yet after attending for 48 years, Sacred Heart’s closing didn’t come as a surprise to her. Irondale, a narrow residential street, shows signs of decline, and Sacred Heart no longer serves the needs of immigrants like Dzurec’s parents. The diocese says it is faced with shrinking, inner-city populations, a lack of financial support for some parishes and a shortage of priests across the country.
“Unfortunately, there are fewer priests and less money to go around,” Dzurec said. “The Catholic Church has to take care of its people with fewer resources.”
Sacred Heart hasn’t had a permanent priest since 2002, and services had been conducted by visiting priests. That’s why parishioners were touched to see the last resident pastor, Fr. George Guschwan, in attendance.
“This is the most alive parish I’ve ever experienced in the United States,” said Guschwan, who now lives in University Park, Md. “I hope they take everything they’ve got as they join other parishes. They have a lot to offer.”
As of today, the church building and its religious artifacts will be under lock and key by the diocese. Its ornate stained glass windows, each depicting a saint and labeled in Hungarian, and the 14 Stations of the Cross will be put in storage. Parishioners said the altar statue of Jesus is reportedly going to St. Agnes.