'Mass Mobs' Aim To Keep Pews Full At Old Churches

Oct 9, 2014
Originally published on October 10, 2014 4:16 pm

In Detroit, a group of Catholics borrowed the idea of flash mobs for "Mass mobs" to help revitalize urban churches.

Every month, a group called Detroit Mass Mobs picks a church, spreads the word on Facebook — and just like that, it fills up and buzzes with the energy it once had.

St. Florian Church in Hamtramck is an eight-story, red-brick church built in 1908 by the Polish families who flocked here to work for Dodge, Ford and Packard. It seats 1,500 people, but normally only about 200 people attend noon Mass. On a recent Sunday, Thom Mann, an organizer with Detroit Mass Mob who's not a regular at St. Florian, had to get here early because, he says, "there'll be standing room only."

"People are upset that the churches are closing, but the simple reason is, people don't go," Mann says. "When you have a church that seats 1,500 people, and there's 100 people there or less, how are they going to keep them open?"

Detroit Mass Mob started earlier this year after Mann saw an article about a similar effort in Buffalo. The first event in Detroit was in April and drew 150 people. The Detroit Free Press ran an article right before the second event.

"And it doubled our attendance. We filled that church at 400," Mann says.

Nine hundred people came to the third Mass. Then they started looking for bigger churches.

At the recent Mass mob at St. Florian, 2,000 people showed up.

"I've always wanted to see the insides of a lot of these places," says Thom Kinney. It's his fifth Mass mob event.

Kinney says there's something special about coming to Mass with so many other people. "To be in attendance when it's full, as opposed to just the sparse. There's an electricity that's amazing," he says.

People trickle in, looking for seats, and then the traditional Roman Catholic Mass begins. There are Polish hymns. The priest, the Rev. Mirek Frankowski — who also doubles as music director — says the crowd nearly brought him to tears.

"Because, I mean, such a big crowd, it's impossible to see these days in any of the churches. But thanks to the mob Mass we have this feeling of what it was so many years ago, when the churches were filled with people," he says.

Nancy Tash is a regular parishioner here. She says she loves what the Mass mob is doing — and she hopes it gets Catholics to start going to church again. "And if they don't go to church, I sure hope they send some money sometimes, just to keep these old parishes surviving," Tash says.

The day of the Mass mob, St. Florian's collection basket brought in more than $19,000 — about 10 times the amount donated at a typical Mass. The Mass mob's next target is St. Francis d'Assisi in southwest Detroit, another church that could use an influx of parishioners to fill its pews and collection baskets.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You may have seen a flash mob on YouTube, or maybe you've even experienced this phenomenon in real life. A group of people converge on a public space, seemingly out-of-the-blue, for, say, a re-creation of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or Verdi's "Requiem." It could be anything. Now, in Detroit, a group of Catholics have created a variation on that - the mass mob. It's a crowd-sourced effort to revive urban churches with a lot of empty pews these days. Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: St. Florian Catholic Church was built by the Polish families who flocked here to work for Dodge, Ford and Packard. The eight-story, redbrick church seats 1,500 people. Normally only about 200 people attend the noon mass, but on a recent Sunday, Thom Mann had to get here early.

THOM MANN: Because there'll be standing-room only.

HULETT: Mann doesn't belong to this parish. He's an organizer behind a group called Detroit Mass Mob. Every month, the group picks one church, spreads the word on Facebook, and just like that, these churches fill up and buzz with the energy they once had back in the days when more car factories were open and families hadn't yet moved to the suburbs.

MANN: People are upset that the churches are closing, but the simple reason is that people don't go.

HULETT: Detroit Mass Mob started earlier this year after Mann saw an article about a similar effort in Buffalo. The first event in Detroit was in April and drew 150 people. The Detroit Free Press ran an article right before the second event.

MANN: And it doubled our attendance. We filled that church of 400.

HULETT: Nine hundred people came to the third mass. Then they started looking for bigger churches. Two thousand people showed up at St. Florian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

THOM KINNEY: I've always wanted to see the insides of a lot of these places.

HULETT: This is Thom Kinney’s fifth mass mob event. He IDs the painted statues of saints for a friend, then looks up at the soaring, Gothic arches.

KINNEY: I mean, look at these windows. I mean, you only see stuff in this like Europe or something like that.

HULETT: Kinney says there's something special about coming to mass with so many other people.

KINNEY: To be in attendance when it's full as opposed to just the sparse it's - there's an electricity that's - it's amazing.

HULETT: People trickle in looking for seats, and then the traditional Roman Catholic mass begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

HULETT: The priest here, Reverend Mirek Frankowski, also doubles as the musical director. He says today's crowd nearly brought him to tears.

REVEREND MIREK FRANKOWSKI: Because, I mean, such a big crowd is impossible to see these days in any of the churches. But thanks to the mob mass, those people that came for that because, you know, we have this feeling of what it was so many years ago and when the churches were filled with people.

HULETT: Following the mass, folks head down to the basement for traditional Polish dancing, pierogi, kielbasa and a cash bar. Nancy Tash is a regular parishioner here. She says she loves what the mass mob is doing, and she hopes it gets Catholics to start going to church again.

NANCY TASH: And if they don't go to church, I sure hope they send some money sometimes just to keep these old parishes surviving.

HULETT: On this day, St. Florian's collection baskets brought in almost $20,000 - that's about 10 times the amount donated at a typical mass. The mass mob's next target is St. Francis D'Assisi in Southwest Detroit, another church that could use an influx of parishioners to fill their pews and their collection baskets. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.