ROCHESTER — On the afternoon of April 23, Father Raymond H. Fleming closed the doors of St. Augustine Church, tying their handles with a black cloth, signifying death, and a branch of forsythia, signifying resurrection.
A few drops fell from the overcast sky onto the hundreds of people standing on Chili Avenue, which had been blocked off by police to accommodate the overflow crowd that had come to St. Augustine’s for its final Mass.
If God was shedding tears of rain in sadness over the church’s closing, minutes later he opened the clouds, bathing the crowd in warm sunshine. The mixed weather seemed to mirror the mixed emotions of the congregation.
“We know that St. Augustine’s is now closed, and we’ve got to make sure the Gospel continues to be proclaimed in this neighborhood, and everybody’s ready to do that,” Father Fleming said.
Soon the pastor will have to close another 19th Ward church, Our Lady of Good Counsel on Brooks Avenue, where parishioners will celebrate a final Mass at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 7.
St. Augustine’s and Good Counsel parishioners, meanwhile, are forming a larger community that will gather for worship at St. Monica Church, 831 Genesee St., also under the leadership of Father Fleming.
Both closing parishes belong to the 19th Ward/Corn Hill/Bull’s Head Planning Group, which also encompasses Ss. Peter and Paul on West Main Street. Ss. Peter and Paul also will close at a date that has not yet been determined, and its parishioners, too, will join the community at St. Monica’s. Parishioners of Emmanuel Church of the Deaf, which formerly held its Masses at Good Counsel, also will move to St. Monica’s.
The closings were recommended by members of the Roman Catholic Community of the 19th Ward/Ss. Peter and Paul’s Planning Committee, which includes representatives from all five parishes. Bishop Matthew H. Clark approved the committee’s recommendation last fall.
In their planning process, the committee considered such varied factors as the declining number of priests; reduced attendance due to a declining city population; the strength and efficiency of combining their financial resources; and the desire to pool resources for ministry in light of the various facilities’ ages and need for ongoing maintenance.
Founded in 1898, St. Augustine Parish has been home to native-born Catholics and generations of immigrants, including Portuguese native Jos√© Emidio Freitas and his wife, Rosa. The couple has attended St. Augustine since the 1970s, and both teared up as they spoke of how their two children were baptized there, and how one was married there. Jos√© said he became angry when someone to whom he was speaking described the church, and the memories it contained, as just a building.
“It’s not a building — it’s a monument,” he said.
Jean Kase, a 1978 graduate of St. Augustine Elementary School, said she had occasionally attended Mass at the church over the years even though she no longer belonged to the parish..
“It was always like coming home,” she said.
A number of priests who had served St. Augustine were also on hand for the final Mass, including Father Robert Ring, pastor from 1989-92.
“It was a wonderfully warm, accepting community deeply committed to reaching out to those in need,” he recalled.
Father Peter Enyan-Boadu, who hails from the African nation of Ghana, noted that St. Augustine was the first American parish to which he was assigned, from 1992-96.
“This has been a parish for immigrants, so it felt like home to me,” he said.
Indeed, Koreans, Haitians, Sudanese, and many other immigrants have called St. Augustine’s home, a fact acknowledged when the congregation sang a hymn with verses in 15 different languages. Judith Ekiyor, a native of Nigeria, observed that the parishioners welcomed immigrants.
“They’re trying to know you, to make you feel comfortable, supporting you in any way they can,” she said.
Father Enyan-Boadu also noted that St. Augustine Parish reached out to those in need, including terminally ill patients at Elisha House, a home for the dying jointly operated between 1990 and 2000 by St. Augustine and its Chili Avenue neighbor, St. Stephen Episcopal Church. Deacon Brian J. McNulty, who served the parish in the 1980s and 1990s, said such interdenominational cooperation was a hallmark of St. Augustine. Deacon McNulty’s wife, Episcopal Deacon Lynne McNulty, oversaw Elisha House.
“St. Stephen’s and St. Augustine’s had a lovely working relationship,” she said.
The McNultys said they were glad that another Christian church — Progressive Church of God in Christ — would be taking over the St. Augustine building later this year, but were sad to see the Catholic parish close.
“It’s sad that the Roman Catholic population is changing in this neighborhood, but that doesn’t mean that God’s work isn’t going to be done,” Deacon Brian McNulty said.
Part of that work is still being done by Interfaith Action, an ecumenical federation of churches and businesses that currently is headquartered at St. Augustine. The federation has been involved in numerous efforts to improve housing and other aspects of life on the city’s west side. Brian Kane, director of Interfaith Action, noted that St. Augustine’s played a crucial role in the federation, and Father Robert T. Werth, St. Augustine’s pastor from 1992-04, said that role exemplified what Christians should be doing.
“The church moved out beyond its walls, and the church is supposed to move beyond its walls,” he said.
Still, many parishioners were glad to have one more chance to stand within those walls and say goodbye. Jessica Accorso, 17, an altar server at the final Mass, called the liturgy “profound.”
“It kind of felt like we were all family again, seeing the church full like that,” she said.
Judith Ekiyor’s son, Theo, 12, also served at the final Mass.
“People were here, people I haven’t seen in years,” he said.
Marianne Conheady, a parishioner for 20 years, said she and her family will miss St. Augustine.
“We moved out of the city eight years ago, and we never changed our church because there’s too much of a connection,” she said.
Mary Ellen Fischer, the church’s pastoral minister, said about 500 Catholics called St. Augustine home. Although some St. Augustine parishioners are still looking for a new parish, she said more and more of her parishioners have been attending Masses at St. Monica during the past couple of weeks, realizing that their old parish family can be found there.
“We need to journey to another thing, and that journey is over at St. Monica’s,” Fischer said.