Keeping the faith in the new Northeast

| Jonathan Liedl | July 2, 2019 | 0 Comments
Fathers Spencer Howe and Byron Hagan walk down Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis

From left, Fathers Spencer Howe and Byron Hagan walk down Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis in this 2018 file photo. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Longtime residents of Northeast have fond memories of growing up in the historically Catholic part of Minneapolis, affectionately known as “a small town in the big city.”

They share stories of games of hide-and-seek with 50-plus kids in the neighborhood park. They can tell you the names of the members of every family that lived on their block. And they recall how on Sunday mornings, nearly every family in the neighborhood would walk to their respective ethnic parish, beckoned by the call of church bells that rang out from the 13 Catholic churches and chapels in or on the borders of Northeast.

From the way Mike Rainville, 64, a fifth-generation Northeaster and parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, speaks about the area, it’s clear that it could have never been mistaken for a simple bedroom community. “(Northeast) has never been a place where you just take a shower and keep your clothes,” he said. “It’s where you have family and where you practice your faith.” 

Today, however, the landscape is somewhat different. Millennials, not large Catholic families, are the dominant demographic in Northeast, the part of Minneapolis east of the Mississippi River and north of Hennepin Avenue. 

They’ve come in droves over the past 10 years, driving real estate prices up and the average age down to under 30. Northeast’s newest residents are attracted by the area’s thriving arts scene, hip bars and breweries, and trendy restaurants, many of which occupy buildings that once were factories and warehouses where Catholic immigrants who first settled in Northeast made their living. They love the area’s many trails and its proximity to downtown, as well as the fact that life here unfolds against a backdrop of gritty, urban neighborhoods.

But on a Sunday morning in the new Northeast, these millennial denizens are more likely to head to a coffee shop or yoga studio than Mass. They might appreciate Northeast’s churches for their bells or architecture, but most of them aren’t darkening their doors. Statistics show that 50 percent of millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic, and only 7 percent actively practice their faith.

Still, despite these and other changes in Northeast, the area’s Catholic parishes believe they have an integral part to play in the life of the community.

“There’s still a spiritual longing here,” said Father Byron Hagan, parochial vicar of Holy Cross, a Northeast parish, “and this means that there’s a mission in a classic Catholic neighborhood that our local Church can’t responsibly abandon.”

And in an area known for injecting old buildings with new life, it’s not surprising to see the same Catholic spirit of Northeast playing out in creative ways that build upon the past.

Immigrant legacy

Long known as “the Polish Quarter,” an acknowledgment of the large number of Poles and other Eastern Europeans who settled there around the turn of the 20th century, Northeast has always been a home for immigrants looking to establish themselves.

Some of those immigrants still come from Poland, and they continue to find a home at Holy Cross, which was established in 1886 at the request of the Polish immigrant community. Father Stan Poszwa, a member of the Society of Christ Fathers, a religious society dedicated to ministering to Polish communities in North America, celebrates the Polish-language Mass every Sunday. Polish school is held every Saturday during the school year, and Polish community celebrations still take place in Kolbe Hall, named for Polish martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe.

But for the most part, the current chapter of Northeast’s ongoing legacy of immigration looks different than it did in the past. For instance, while students at the St. John Paul II Catholic School, which sits on the campus of Holy Cross, still greet visitors by singing them a Polish hymn, almost none of them have Polish ancestry; they’re mostly Ecuadorian. Others are immigrants from East Africa. 

Down the road at St. Boniface, a large French-speaking African community worships in a church where German was once the lingua franca. And the Ecuadorian families that send their children to St. John Paul II for school bring them to Sts. Cyril and Methodius for Mass, where the longtime Slovak parishioners joke that funerals are for the Slovaks, while the weddings and baptisms are for the Spanish-speaking newcomers.

“That’s exactly how it all started,” said Tom Siwek, a third-generation Northeaster and active parishioner at Holy Cross, referring to Northeast’s legacy as a landing spot for immigrants. His grandparents established Siwek Lumber and Millwork in 1933 to serve the housing needs of newcomers. Last year, he supplied the building material and led the construction of a new playground at St. John Paul II school, where three generations of his family were educated, beginning with his father in 1939. Although the students at the school now come from a different culture, Siwek still considers them part of the same Northeast family.


Holy Cross, Includes four campuses:

  • Holy Cross, 1621 University Ave. NE;
  • St. Clement, 24th Ave. NE;
  • St. Hedwig, 129 29th Ave. NE, and
  • St. Anthony Chapel at Catholic Eldercare, 813 Main St. NE

Our Lady of Lourdes, 1 Lourdes Place

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 701 Fillmore St. NE

St. Boniface, 629 Second St. NE

St. Constantine (Ukranian rite), 515 University Ave. NE

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, 229 13th Ave. NE

St. Maron (Maronite rite), 600 University Ave. NE

St. John the Baptist (Byzantine rite), 2215 3rd St. NE

St. Charles Borromeo, 2739 Stinson Blvd., St. Anthony (borders northeast Minneapolis)

‘It’s a beautiful cycle’

The passing of the baton from one community to another isn’t always smooth. Sts. Cyril and Methodius parishioner Julio Alvarado said there were some struggles in the first years that Ecuadorians arrived at the historically Slovak parish in the 1990s. Now, however, the two groups have learned to work together as a team, he said, with the older generation helping the newcomers navigate some of the nuances of American parish life, such as getting a city permit for a religious procession.

“It’s great to share their experience and culture,” Alvarado said.

According to some residents, the millennials who’ve moved into the area are also a new version of the old Northeast, living out the same spirit of community and belonging.

Catholic young adults gather at Able Seedhouse and Brewery in Northeast for a Catholic Beer Club

Catholic young adults gather at Able Seedhouse and Brewery in Northeast for a Catholic Beer Club event April 4, 2018. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

“I actually see that younger generation get into arguments on Facebook about who is ‘more Northeast,’” said Tony Lipa, a fourth-generation Northeaster and Holy Cross parishioner, referring to the neighborhood’s moniker. “It’s what you want to be a part of, which I think is great.”

And despite millennials’ relative non-involvement in traditional religion, several of Northeast’s parishes are intentional about reaching out to the emerging demographic.

None have been more successful than Our Lady of Lourdes, where Pastor Father Daniel Griffith said parish membership has tripled in the past six years, with millennials the most well-represented age group among new parishioners. The parish has averaged 30 weddings and 45 baptisms annually over the past three years, another sign of its appeal to young adults.

“It’s kind of a two-step dance,” said Father Griffith. “We want to make sure we’re fully engaged with the young folks who are already interested,” while also reaching out to others.

Lourdes has complemented its prime location just off Hennepin Avenue with compelling young adult programming such as its popular Vespers at Lourdes, a monthly event that bills itself as “a substantial encounter with the Living God,” combining chanted psalms and eucharistic adoration with substantive catechesis and conversation.

“The thing that I really appreciate is that these events are never just about socializing,” said Katie Keller, 29, who attends Vespers as well as young adult events held at Holy Cross, where she’s been a parishioner since moving to Northeast in 2017. “Prayer is always an essential aspect of whatever they have going on.”

At Holy Cross, Father Hagan, 49, said he and the pastor, Father Spencer Howe, 32, can’t help but make a statement of faith in their everyday encounters with the Northeasters they meet on the sidewalks or in restaurants, encounters that are all the more frequent in a place built for community. Seeing the young priests in their collars, millennial Northeasters are reminded that the Catholic churches in the neighborhoods are not simply marks of a bygone past, but places where a new generation of men have made a countercultural choice to live for Christ.

“Frankly, it’s a lot of fun for me, and I think it’s a lot of fun for them, too,” Father Hagan said of these conversations, which he thinks can help dissolve stereotypes people might have about priests or the Catholic faith.

Father Hagan said these interactions haven’t led to any “hip millennial conversions,” but they plant the relational seed for more meaningful encounters in the future, perhaps when a couple thinks about getting married or when someone goes through a hard time.

It’s an approach to priestly life that’s strongly encouraged by Father Cyril Farmer, pastor of St. John the Baptist, a Byzantine Catholic parish in Northeast, who, like Pope Francis, thinks priests should “smell like their sheep.”

“If you live in the neighborhood, you need to be around as if you live in the neighborhood,” he said.

Both parishes have also made a concerted effort to engage Northeast’s trendy, young crowd by participating in community events like Art-a-Whirl, an annual Northeast-wide art studio tour. This past May, Holy Cross took part for the second year in a row, hosting artists, live music and food at its St. Clement campus.

“Catholicism has to be interested in what Northeast is interested in if it’s going to make contact in the neighborhood and be relevant,” Father Hagan said.

A eucharistic procession winds through the neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis

A eucharistic procession winds through the neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis June 10, 2018. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Rooted in tradition

While Catholic renewal in Northeast looks toward the future, it’s also firmly planted in the Church’s tradition. 

This is especially clear at the Church of All Saints, a diocesan parish entrusted since 2013 to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, whose priests offer sacraments exclusively in the Extraordinary Form. Once a flagging neighborhood parish, All Saints now has parishioners who commute from across the Twin Cities to take part in its liturgies.

This approach to renewal has also guided how Northeast’s parishes are utilizing some of their physical spaces. The old Holy Cross convent, once a place of prayer and rest for Franciscan sisters, is now Bethany House, a women’s discernment house run by the archdiocese’s Office of Vocations. The old rectory at St. Clement currently houses a group of Catholic men, not the parish priest. And the church and school of St. Anthony of Padua has long been home to a Catholic Eldercare community, where president and CEO Dan Johnson said the same “crisscrossing of community” that has defined the area for generations plays out among residents, many of whom grew up in the Northeast neighborhoods.

The Church’s patrimony has also been an inspiration for the priests at Holy Cross, who are part of a group of diocesan priests hoping to establish an Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a form of priestly living that would allow members to live together in stability. After sharing their aspirations with Archbishop Bernard Hebda, Fathers Howe and Hagan were assigned to Holy Cross in the summer of 2017. They live at the nearby St. Boniface rectory with Father Andy Jaspers, a full-time spiritual director at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, and Father Bryce Evans, who was recently assigned as parochial vicar at Lourdes.

“We have a desire to live the apostolic life — priests living and working together in community — while remaining true to our seminary training as ‘secular’ (diocesan) clergy,” Father Hagan said. 

Collective effort

Northeast’s Catholic spirit is still operative, but it’s not as pronounced or obvious as it once was. Several of the area’s priests recognize the need to represent Catholicism in Northeast in a more intentional way by fostering greater collaboration among the different communities.

“Sometimes in the past, that’s been a challenge for Catholic parishes,” Father Griffith said.

The resulting effort is called the Northeast Catholic Collective. Father Hagen said at this point, it’s more of an “intuition than anything else” that “underneath all of the Catholic diversity in Northeast, there’s a fundamental unity” which was once obvious, but now needs to be pointed out.

To do this, participating parishes have collaborated on a variety of projects, blurring the lines of what were once hard-and-fast parochial divides between the ethnically distinct parishes of Northeast. Priests from Holy Cross have participated in the Greek Catholic liturgies at St. John and taught catechesis at Lourdes. Father Farmer has led a men’s group at Holy Cross. And for the second year in a row, Our Lady of Lourdes fundraised at its annual gala to support the mission of the Northeast Catholic Collective.

“We’re not rivals,” Father Hagan said. “We really do belong together.”

Under the Northeast Catholic Collective banner, the parishes have held young adult Holy Hours, speaker series at local bars and summertime garden parties. This past May, they hosted world-renowned art historian Elizabeth Lev at Holy Cross for a presentation on
St. Helena and the true cross. This fall, they’ll sponsor a series on Catholic social teaching and urban living by local expert Richard Aleman.

The Collective’s collaboration certainly makes it easier on the parishes’ resources, but it’s about more than just practical efficiency.

“It’s a question of how we witness,” Father Farmer said.

Father Hagan said that the Collective is helping observant Catholics think about how their belonging in the Church extends beyond just the family parish, so that they in turn might be able to offer a more open welcome to non-Catholics in Northeast.

“We don’t have a pocketful of solutions,” he said, “but we do see the richness of the spiritual challenge. We just want to do our best to answer it.”



Part of Northeast’s appeal to millennials is its distinct sense of place. Life unfolds in the midst of urban neighborhoods that stand out from the uniformity of suburbia, where many of the newcomers likely grew up. In the colorful, walkable, tree-covered confines of Northeast, they’ve discovered a way of life designed around community.

It’s not a new development, but the continuation of a centuries-old model of urban living that fosters a sense of belonging and identity, to which the Catholic roots of the area aren’t incidental. It’s noticeable in conversations with longtime Northeast residents, who mention within the first minute what generation of Northeaster they are.

Mike Rainville, 64, is steeped in the area’s stories, earning him the nickname “Mr. Northeast.” The fifth-generation Northeaster is an active parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, which his French-Canadian ancestors helped establish over 140 years ago. Rainville has passed his love of Northeast on to his 23-year-old son, Mike Jr., who gives tours of the area and writes for the Mill City Times, a local publication.

“He’s told me that he always wants to live in Northeast,” Rainville said of his son.

The neighborhood’s Catholic roots began growing in the late 19th century, Rainville explained, when waves of Catholic immigrants — French-Canadian, German, Polish, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Lebanese and others — began to make Northeast their home, taking jobs at the industrial centers that lined the river and railways.

Some say Northeast, which was originally established as the village of St. Anthony before merging with Minneapolis in 1872, was the only part of a mostly Protestant city where Catholics were allowed to settle. Descendants of those immigrants are quick to point out that its nickname “Nordeast” was not an endearing term, but a slur meant to mock Eastern European newcomers who struggled to speak the English language.

Denied higher paying opportunities and wider societal acceptance, these original Northeasters were left to shape their neighborhoods with what they did have: their faith and their community. Those factors began to mold Northeast into a patchwork of ethnic communities, with a Catholic church usually at the center of each.

“They were built by immigrants who were having a hard enough time,” but sacrificed the little savings they’d earned for the sake of their faith and community, Rainville said of Northeast’s parishes.

The churches aren’t the only physical manifestation of the Catholic culture that flourished here. The duplex units common in Northeast, now usually rented out, were actually built to be multi-generational homes. It wasn’t uncommon to find grandparents, parents and children under one roof, with a recently immigrated relative living in the basement. The traditional zoning put residential and commercial lots in close proximity, meaning many residents shopped and worked in the same neighborhood where they lived and worshipped.

Northeast began to change, with the rest of America, in the 1960s and ’70s. With the close of major local industries in the cities and the development of the interstate highway system, the suburbs became the site of the American Dream. Increasingly, descendants of the immigrants who had built Northeast moved to Fridley, Andover, Blaine and beyond.

Many remember the years that followed as challenging times in Northeast. Residents grew older. Houses and stores fell into disrepair, and crime became a serious problem. Even Mr. Northeast himself, a new father in the 1990s, questioned whether he should keep his family in such a rough-and-tumble part of town.

The artist community played a pivotal role in reviving Northeast in the late 1990s. Pushed out from the North Loop, they turned Northeast’s abandoned industrial buildings into studio spaces, adding life, color and eventually an influx of newcomers to an area that had grown stagnant. A number of Northeast Catholics acknowledge that the area likely wouldn’t have rebounded to anywhere near what it is today without them. The community’s success in opposing Interstate 335, a planned interstate highway expansion in the 1970s that would have cut Northeast in half, was also a vital factor in preserving the physical makeup of the area.

But Rainville thinks it’s also important to acknowledge the role the churches of Northeast played in keeping the area afloat. He points to Our Lady of Lourdes. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had considered closing it in the 1970s, he said, but Al Hofstede, Minneapolis’ mayor and a Lourdes parishioner, asked Church leaders to reconsider. The church stayed open, and it has been the center of revitalization in old St. Anthony that has taken place over the past 40 years.

“At a time when other middle class neighborhoods in the city fell apart, Northeast held together because of the culture of pride, hard work, homeownership and faith,” Rainville said.

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