Church Shopping

IMG_6436by Felicia Schneiderhan

When my husband Mark and I were considering moving from Chicago (our home of 16 years) to Duluth, Minnesota, we went on a reconnaissance mission. It’s a big leap to go from a major metropolis of three million people to a North Woods oasis of 80,000 – we figured we might want to check it out first.

(I say this only half joking; we set our sights on Duluth having never stepped foot in the place.)

We spent four days driving around the San Francisco of the Midwest. We visited the college campuses (there are three), checked out the parks (Duluth maintains 11,862 acres of “city” parks), drove through winding neighborhoods, and went to Mass.

We randomly picked a church online – St. Michael’s – and sat in the crying baby room, even though we have no crying baby. I studied the people in the pews. Could I attend Mass here every Sunday? Could these people be my neighbors? That Sunday happened to be the annual parish chicken dinner, so we plodded down to the basement with everyone to eat fried chicken and roast beef and mounds of mashed potatoes and stuffing and plenty of pie for dessert. They passed the test for stick-to-your-ribs and come-on-back-for-seconds; but would the parishoners pass the test for friendliness? We sat down next to some folks who promptly left. We took our plates to another table where the people chatted us up for a half hour, giving us plenty of pointers for this city they loved.

Six months later, in the midst of a snowstorm, we U-Hauled our way up to Duluth. We found a place to live, a place to buy our groceries, a place to work. But finding a church?

Duluth, with a population of 80,000, has 14 parishes, plus two campus ministries.

Let me put this in perspective: My hometown, Moline, Illinois, has a population of 40,000, and two Catholic churches.

So Mark and I started working our way down the list, trekking out each Sunday morning to visit a new church, to find “the one.” I had very high expectations. I wanted greeters at the door to shake my hand, a full choir, parishoners who smiled generously and moved to the center of the pew, altar girls, and most importantly, a homily that would knock my socks off.

Instead, I found half-asleep parishioners who had been attending the same church for so long they didn’t notice any new folks. I found well-intentioned deacons whose homilies made me shift uncomfortably in my seat, whispering rebuttals under my breath. I found a lot of really nice people who were just going to church on a Sunday. I sat in the pew wondering what exactly I was looking for – why was I so picky? Wasn’t it all about the Eucharist, anyway?

And then we bought a house. We moved in, just a few blocks down the street from St. Michael’s, the very first church we auditioned in Duluth. We could ride our bikes there in less than 10 minutes. It seemed silly to go anywhere else.

Our first Sunday locking up our bikes near the front doors, the pastor, Fr. Tom, called to us from the steps, “Better lock them up tight – it’s pretty dangerous around here.” He shook our hands and introduced us to one of the greeters, who also shook our hand. They chatted us up for a few minutes. After Mass, they introduced us to more people. As we walked out, Mark said to me, “I never got a welcome like that before.”

So we went back the next week, and the next. There were greeters who shook my hand, parishioners who smiled and moved to the center of the pew, a full choir, altar girls, and every week, an amazing sermon – I was actually learning about my faith. And oh yes – we shared the Eucharist together as a community of believers.

Now that we are about to sign up as full-fledged parishioners at St. Michael’s, led to the ideal by simple geography, it occurs to me that it was never up to me to pick my parish; God had one chosen all along. I only had to follow the breadcrumbs.

Felicia Schneiderhan is a Duluth-based writer and a contributor to From the Pews in the Back.

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