Led by organizer and founder Christopher Byrd, 46, the Buffalo Mass Mob votes via its website to pick a parish church to visit on a given Sunday. The choices are then promoted through Facebook and Twitter, and the chosen church gets full pews for perhaps the first time in many years–and a healthy sum in the collection basket.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many immigrants flooding into America’s cities were Catholic, but a lot of the cities they were entering had been, up to that time, heavily Protestant. So, churches needed to be built to accommodate and support the new arrivals.
They formed the center of ethnic neighborhoods and reflected the diversity of Catholic Europe. Also, there were Catholic churches established to service the Eastern Rite of the Church, primarily for people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
As time went on, immigrants learned English, became educated, and many eventually migrated out of city centers, to be replaced by newer immigrants. Some churches have closed, but others endure, incorporating new cultures and customs, such as Vietnamese and Latin American. That continues to this day, but a general shift away from regular church attendance, along with the huge move to suburbia after World War II and exurbia in recent decades, has left many city parishes short of worshipers.
These jewel-box churches, reflecting diverse customs and cultures, rich in history, and containing the loving work of innumerable artists and craftsmen, have become increasingly empty.
This is where Byrd comes in. Recently, some Catholics in Buffalo, NY, decided to find out what they were missing. Rather than just conducting architectural tours of the buildings–treating them as historical monuments instead of houses of worship–they decided to pick a church and attend Mass as a group.
When the Associated Press ran a story on the group’s efforts on Feb. 1, it was picked up all over the nation, causing a flood of emails to cascade onto Byrd and his fellow members.
Right now, the plan is for six Mass mobs a year. The next Buffalo Mass Mob is on March 23.
Byrd says the group has discussed branching out to other Christian denominations, but “that is really down the road,” so all the possible churches are currently Catholic. (But one supposes other denominations could form a group of their own.)
They are: Holy Angels (a parish of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate), founded in 1851, with the church dedicated in 1859; Saint Anthony of Padua, founded in 1891 by the Missionaries of St. Charles (Scalabrini Fathers), a religious order established in Italy to care for migrants and refugees; St. John Kanty (a historically Polish parish), established in 1892; Saint Clare’s (Shrine of St. Jude), founded 2007 (but the church building looks a century or more older); and the Church of St. Casimir (another historically Polish parish), founded in 1890.
Byrd took time to answer some email questions from Breitbart News:
What has it meant to your members to visit these churches?
The Catholic churches we select are heritage churches. They were formed because of the massive immigration to Buffalo from European countries in the late 1800s and early 20th Century. The Polish, Irish, Italian and German populations exploded here. With this explosion, it saw the formation of a lot of Catholic parishes and churches that mirrored the churches of these cultures’ own countries.
It gives members a chance to experience a church and worship in places that are still used as they were 100-150 years ago. It means a lot to help connect people with them. These churches were built by very humble people, faithful people and people with little money. They built these places as a testament to their faith. These churches built by our ancestors were their gift to Buffalo.
What do you hope is the long-term effect, if any, of visiting these churches, considering how populations have shifted?
The hope here is to put these churches back on the radar screen of people. Buffalo has these incredible houses of worship. At our first two Mass Mobs, a number of people had always wanted to reconnect to these churches. The Mob was the catalyst for them to do it. We want to stroke home the idea that these incredible churches need to be supported. Without support, they will close. If it inspires people to come more–mission accomplished.
Why do you think this story has captured the public imagination?
I think people are attracted to the simplicity of it. It is not a huge organized effort. People are simply called to come and worship together with no strings attached. In the process, they are helping a church.
Is there a common thread about the Mass Mob members?
The concept of coming together as people of the Catholic Faith to worship together is one. The other is coming together in an incredible house of worship.
What has been the reaction of the local Diocese?
The Buffalo Diocese has contacted us about the Mass Mob. They wanted to know the ins and outs of what we are and why. The answer we gave them was to simply engage people to attend Mass and support inner-city churches who needed a boost.
What is the most important thing you’d like people to know about urban parishes?
These churches and coming to them are like going to Mass with your ancestors. You can’t build churches like these anymore. These are architectural, artistic and religious gems that inspire us.
Do you think the beauty and history of these churches will draw people back from the suburbs?
There has been a trend with people to want to connect with their roots. If you look at the popularity of places like Ancestry.com, people want to know where they came from. These churches are living, breathing links to a lot of people’s past and ancestors. You often hear that the Church is not a building. In many ways, that is true, but once you walk into one of these incredible old churches, you feel the presence of a higher power at work.
What are the criteria for choosing the next church?
We have five churches to vote on. We hold an online vote via our website. The list of churches was culled from suggestions we asked people to submit.
What has been the biggest surprise so far?
The success of them, plain and simple. Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect. We were literally blown away by the response when people started filling the pews.
How would you advise folks who might want to start this in their own cities?
Find a group of like-minded people and use social media to spread the word. It’s not as hard as you think.