CLEVELAND -- Ten recently reopened Catholic churches are experiencing challenges and successes.
"It's just been absolutely phenomenal," beams Fr. Dan Begin, new pastor of St. Mary's in Bedford, which reopened in late July." It takes me longer to hug them goodbye than it does to say Mass," he says of his new parishioners.
Fr. Begin notes that Sunday Mass attendance, which began with 1,200 worshippers the day the parish reopened, has held at nearly those levels, with between 800 and 1,000 people in the pews each Sunday.
"About 400 of those famlies have officially joined, or rejoined the parish by filling out registration forms," the pastor told WKYC. "We still have a long way to go because we are almost like a new parish, just starting out."
Pastors of the other recently reopened churches echoed similar assessments.
"We are very pleased. We thought things would take much longer," says Fr. Gary Chmura, who splits his duties between his original parish, Our Lady of Peace, and his new assignment as pastor of the just reopened St. Adalbert on East 83rd Street in Cleveland.
"I called a meeting and thought if I got 30 people to volunteer for various duties and ministries in the parish I would be the luckiest man in the world," Fr. Chmura began, recalling his organizational meeting.
"Well, over 150 people showed up and volunteered, so I feel like the luckiest man in the universe."
Mass attendance at the inner city parish has been 150 people per Sunday, around the same as before the church was ordered closed in 2009 by Bishop Richard Lennon. St. Adalbert and 10 other parishes had their closings reversed by the Vatican in early 2012.
Fr. Chmura thinks that number of parishioners could be enough to sustain the church's viability, although he says he is not concentrating now on numbers, but on the parish's vitality, including its planned outreaches into the surrounding neighborhood.
"We have all the we need here, and more, to rebuild a parish," he predicted."All of the talent and all of the enthusiasm that you could conceivably want in the world."
At St. James in Lakewood, one of the churches whose closing was strongly challenged, more than 1,400 people attended the opening Mass on feast of St. James in July.
Pastor Fr. Joseph Workman, who doubles as head of St. Clement parish, says Mass attendance has been "consistent" since the reopening, with about 90 percent of those attending being former parishioners.
Allof the pastors contacted by WKYC say they do not encourage people to leave the parishes they found after their original churches closed. "They have joined choirs or other ministries in their new parishes. I'd prefer if they choose to return it would be when their obligations to their current parish were completed," said one pastor.
"We just opened the doors," Fr. Workman said, "and try to be supportive of people's needs."
Some new pastors say it will not be possible for monthsto get a good handle on how many people will come back to stay. Many do not have personalized collection envelopes printed. They are the best indicator of Mass attendance.
"Envelopes!" roared Fr. Begin of St. Mary's with a big smile. "Who would have thought envelopes would be one of our biggest challenges!"
Assembling a reliable list of former parishioners has also been challenging at many of the newly reopened churches. Some computerized databases have been lost, and in some cases printed records were removed when the churches were shuttered.
"We've been trying to reconstruct things," says Fr. Bob Kropac, newly named pastor of both St. Wendelin near the West Side Market, and of Historic St. Peter's downtown.
"One of our longtime parishioners at St. Wendelin kept her own email list and mailing list and we're going to work in part from that and send out letters asking those former parishioners of what their interest and intentions might be," Fr. Kropac told WKYC.
"We had around 550 people at our reopening Mass at St. Wendelin, and think we can be viable with between 150 and 300 active families. Right now we have about 175 registration cards."
The future will be less able to predict at St. Peter's, where Fr. Kropac recently celebrated a reopening Mass for about 160 people. Some were former parishioners who chose not to stay with their former pastor, Fr. Robert Marrone.
He formed a breakaway parish called the Community of St. Peter and holds services in a former warehouse. A number of former parishioners of St. Peter's have chosen to remain with Fr. Marrone and not return to their newly reopened church.
"We are still in the opening phase" of reopening, said St. Barbara parishioner Michael Minich in an email. His church on Denison Avenue in Cleveland is averaging between 80 and 90 people for Saturday Mass while attendance at Sunday's Polish language Mass is between 50 and 70.
"We are hoping to rebuilind our congregation," Minich wrote, "but so far we have committees to reestablish and other activities to plan."
At St. John the Baptist in Akron, there are unique challenges but new pastor Fr. Jon Zingales says they must deal with them. "My parish actually sits within the borders of another parish," he points out. "We are not bound by any territory."
St. John the Baptist was founded by Slovak immigrants in the early 20th century, and those who are returning to the church are attracted by that history and heritage.
"So far we have 105 families enrolled, and a total of 162 people. Their average is about 65," Fr. Zingales reported. "But we do have the original sacred objects back in our church and that is very important to the people."
In Cleveland's West Park neighborhood, St. Patrick's reopened with great fanfare. The church's effort to reopen was at the forefront of media coverage, and its opening Mass was packed.
Today about 400 families have registered, and new pastor Fr. James Ols will make a push this weekend to remind people of their chance to re-register. There will be announcements from the pulpit and a mailing.
St. Casimir Catholic Church, which was the scene of prayer vigils every Sunday outside its locked doors for more than two years, opened again with a large and enthusiastic group of worshippers.
Today, Sunday Mass attendance has steadied at around 150 according to long time parishioner Tina Girod. The church's new pastor, Fr. Eric Orzech, who also remains pastor of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village, was expected to move into the St. Casimir rectory soon, Girod told WKYC.
One of the 11 churches whose closing was reversed by the Vatican has not yet reopened. St. Emeric, whose members are mostly of Hungarian descent, has not had a pastor assigned or a date set for its reopening.