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Liturgical tradition's return planned in New Haven

By Ed Stannard
New Haven Register / November 5, 2011

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NEW HAVEN, Conn.—As traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant parishes have left the Hill neighborhood over the years, their place has been taken by evangelical and charismatic churches.

To those accustomed to a liturgical tradition, there has been a loss of the mystery and holiness that is part of their faith, said the Rev. Robert Hendrickson, a priest who serves at Christ Episcopal Church on Broadway. It's not just going to Mass on Sundays, he said, but a feeling of "the church and your life being absolutely intertwined."

The closest Catholic church is St. Anthony's on Washington Avenue, where the primarily Hispanic Sacred Heart parish moved when its church was closed in 2009.

Catholic residents of the southern part of the Hill and City Point, however, feel the void of the neighborhood parish, said Hendrickson.

To fill that spiritual hole, as well as other pastoral needs of the neighborhood, Christ Church and the ministry interns of its St. Hilda's House program are trying to bring the liturgical tradition back to the Hill, to Church of the Ascension at Howard Avenue and Lamberton Street.

The main goal is to meet both practical and spiritual needs and to help heal the "sense of hurt and abandonment that so many churches have pulled out of here," Hendrickson said.

"We began to ask people, `What do you need in the neighborhood?'" said Hendrickson, who has handed out cards for people to list their prayer requests. A branch of New Haven Reads now meets in the parish house behind the church, and Hendrickson said people have asked for classes in English as a second language and training to earn their high school equivalency diplomas.

It is also a way for the interns of St. Hilda's House to see if parish ministry is right for them. While living together as a community, the young people volunteer with church-related or other nonprofit programs to determine whether they will pursue clerical or lay ministry.

"It's clearly an urban neighborhood and it's got a lot of diversity like New York City," said Sarah Raven, originally from Columbus, Ohio, who is living with seven other interns across the street from Ascension.

Raven, who has been working at The Connection Inc. as a research associate, has been meeting with residents and businesses "just trying to get a sense from them about the Hill neighborhood." She's also discovered delights like C-Town grocery, which has low prices and many Hispanic products.

"Everyone wants to characterize this as an extremely dangerous neighborhood and that's not been my experience," she said.

Raven said it's exciting to be bringing a parish back to life. Usually, when churches close, "that's the end of the story," she said. "So, I've never been part of the process where I could be the next chapter in the story of a church. And that to me is what's really exciting about Ascension parish specifically."

Hendrickson says 46 percent of the neighborhood is Hispanic, 41 percent African-American and 72 percent Roman Catholic.

"The estimate we have now is there are 700 to 800 families who were attending the different Roman Catholic parishes that have closed down," he said.

Church of the Ascension is now used for weekly worship services by the New Creation Outreach Church, part of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. The building, however, is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and was last the home of a Spanish-speaking congregation.

The Rev. Geoffrey Little, the priest who oversaw Ascension, as well as St. James Episcopal Church on Grand Avenue, left the Episcopal Church to start his own evangelical parish.

The language issue is a challenge; Hendrickson is learning to lead services in Spanish, but isn't yet fluent. So far, he's leading morning prayer each day.

It's also unknown how many Catholics will attend an Episcopal church, even though the liturgies are similar.

"I have no idea what the parish side of things will look like," Hendrickson said.

Mark Colville, a member of the Amistad Catholic Worker community on Rosette Street, said of the efforts at Ascension, "They're kind of going against the culture in coming back to the Hill."

The Amistad house serves breakfast and lunch five days per week, but sees more need for spiritual nourishment.

"I believe people are really hungering here for a sense of ritual and symbol and worship," Colville said.

Concerning the language barrier, he said, "I won't say it's not an obstacle, but one thing is the liturgies are so similar, they really do resemble each other so much."

Sacred Heart Church on Columbus Avenue was closed in 2009 and the building has since been sold to a nondenominational parish. The Catholic parish moved to St. Anthony's, a traditional Italian parish three blocks away, where Spanish, Italian and English Masses are celebrated.

Sacred Heart is doing "better than ever" in its new home, said Fred Johnson, who was filling in at the office last week while visiting the area.

"Some folks, when the church closed, opted for whatever church was closer to home. . Others moved to shared space at St. Anthony's and since then things have picked up quite well," he said. "We've actually added another Mass."

He said there are between 280 and 350 people attending the 9:15 a.m. Mass on Sundays and 70 to 80 on Saturday afternoons.

Hendrickson laughed about how the Catholics and Episcopalians perceive the size of a successful parish differently.

"We joked that Sacred Heart had 350 families," he said. "If we had 10 percent of that, it would be a booming Episcopal parish."