It’s two Sundays after Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany on the Catholic calendar. At the Church of the Resurrection in Bond Hill, the congregation is still in holiday mode. Pine trees and poinsettias are flanked by a 20-member choir, complete with a cantor, pianist, and drummer on a full kit. As the first notes of “We Three Kings” drop, 11 liturgical dancers dressed in white and gold robes sing and sway up the center aisle, followed by Pastor Dennis Chriszt and Deacon Royce Winters.
After a gospel reading from the book of Matthew, Winters is back in the center aisle, delivering the day’s homily. Wearing a headset, strolling back and forth, raising his arms and his voice, he connects the story of the Magi to his congregants’ lives. “See the light,” he tells them, “and go home a different way.” Forty-five minutes past the hour, Winters cues the choir and slides into a different hymn and then on with the mass. Nearly 90 minutes after start time—overtime by Catholic standards—the priest, deacon, and dancers process back down the aisle before doubling back to embrace parishioners.
Six years ago, this warm, welcoming atmosphere was decidedly less convivial. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati had completed one of the largest parish mergers in its nearly 200-year history, combining four predominantly African-American churches into a single parish, and new faces needed time to adjust. Since then, however, Church of the Resurrection has adopted old traditions and made its own mark while dealing with financial stress and upheaval in the pews. Are they in a better place? Yes, though a lot of parish-building lies ahead.
The modern modified Romanesque structure was built in 1956 and sits just off the residential corner of California Avenue and Reading Road in Bond Hill. The entrance to its 100-car parking lot is a residential driveway between two houses, one of which serves as the parish office. At one time, a parish school operated in a space attached to the church, but it closed in 1993. A separate church meeting space and a food pantry are in another house nearby.
Until 2010, this was home to St. Agnes, founded in 1891. Within a six-mile radius were St. Mark in Evanston, St. Martin de Porres in Lincoln Heights, and St. Andrew in Avondale. The four parishes were comprised of mostly German and Polish Catholics, the largest being St. Mark, which had 1,200 registered families in 1950. By 2005, they had shifted to predominantly African-American congregations, but pews were increasingly empty. That year, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati flagged the four churches—with 415 years of combined history but only an estimated 550 combined members—for unsustainable economics. After five years of study, a committee of parishioners reported that weekly contributions no longer met the costs of operating three out of the four. It recommended St. Agnes—which had the newest building—as the site for the massive merger. The new parish, befitting its backstory, was christened the Church of the Resurrection and celebrated its first mass on August 1, 2010. Father Chriszt and Deacon Winters were charged with shepherding the unification.
A white, first-time pastor, Chriszt arrived early from his last position in Chicago to meet with parish leaders at each church as they closed up shop. “If you don’t do closing well, I can’t do opening well,” he told them. He invited them to apply for jobs and join the pastoral and finance councils of the new parish, but despite his efforts, it was evident that many parishioners were in pain.
According to Winters, members of St. Agnes were aggrieved at “new people in their building,” while members of the other parishes felt like they were invading someone else’s space. “I am still amazed that in spite of the pain and the hardship, the core members still continued to move forward,” says Winters, who converted from the Methodist faith to Catholicism at St. Agnes in 1978 and began serving as deacon there in 1998.
Parishioner Janie Allen-Blue was among those who struggled. She believes the committee overseeing merger plans did not share enough information about why it favored the St. Agnes site. “I was one of the ones who didn’t want to merge,” she says now, noting the much larger capacity at her home parish, St. Mark, seemed to make it the logical choice. After praying on the decision, Allen-Blue took the leap. “My faith told me I needed to go,” she says. Today, she’s a member of the finance council and youth ministries.
The new parish worked quickly to build a new identity. Chriszt collected artifacts from each church: a baptismal font from St. Martin de Porres, a lectern from St. Mark, chairs from St. Agnes, and Easter candles, processional crosses, and holy water from all four. Church of the Resurrection also hosted St. Mark’s trademark Keep the Dream Alive ceremony on Martin Luther King Day. The church added new pieces too, including an August jazz concert, a September cookout, a November dance, and growing youth groups and ministries to serve the poor. And it put maximum attention on its three masses, which currently attract about 320 worshippers each weekend, with music, dance, and preaching that reflect African-American culture.
With an identity forming, the parish focused on its financial health. In 2014, the charter high school P.A.C.E., which rented the old school building, closed, prompting the parish to find ways to cut costs. The most dramatic step was the restructuring of clergy. In mid-2014, the pastoral council promoted Winters to pastoral administrator and moved Chriszt from full to half-time to save money, and according to Winters, “begin developing a new vision and mission for the parish.” Chriszt says only that he was delighted to be relieved of buildings and budgets.
The church’s bottom line will also benefit from the sales of the old churches that have been draining resources. “We’ve had to put a lot of money into [church] buildings that we rarely or never use,” Chriszt says. St. Mark had a buyer who was interested in turning the space into a sacred art studio, but now the parish is looking to sell to another church. Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp. is eyeing St. Andrew for a cultural arts center. If the sales go through, Church of the Resurrection, by Archdiocese policy, will pocket the profits and recoup some of what it’s spent for upkeep over the last six years.
While the changes have been unsettling for some, Andrew Springer, chair of the parish finance council, always trusted the church would understand. “Parishioners saw that we were aggressively trying to control our costs,” he says. When asked—and they were, in direct appeals from the altar—members opened their wallets wider. In 2015, Springer reports, Sunday collections rose about $48,000, or 15 percent. He expects another 10 percent bump this year. It’s the kind of generosity that may not have been present six years ago.
“Once you better know one another,” says John Jones, a parishioner who came from St. Andrew, “it becomes easier.”
At 3 p.m. on a frigid mid-January Monday, there is not a parking spot open in the Church of the Resurrection lot. Inside this year’s Keep the Dream Alive ceremony, an animated standing-room-only crowd includes women in furs and men in suits. Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac is on hand, along with Vice Mayor David Mann, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, Ohio State Senator Cecil Thomas, and other luminaries. It is a day of prayer and partying that will draw an estimated 450 attendees and raise more than $3,000 for the parish. “It’s part of our identity as an African-American community,” says Chriszt. “It’s also part of our identity that we are part of something that is bigger than ourselves.”
Vera Derkson, a cochair of this year’s MLK festivities, believes “church is a coming together of people” and that the King event is a “coming together of our strengths.” Keep the Dream Alive is a chance to recognize people of every race and creed, she adds.
The success of the event was followed by the latest upheaval in the church’s building process. On Valentine’s Day weekend, Chriszt told the parishioners that he will leave the parish on June 30 rather than seek a second six-year appointment as pastor. That decision, he says, grew from his desire to resume living with other priests and brothers of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, his religious community since high school.
Chriszt’s impending departure comes at a time when Church of the Resurrection has eyes set on the future. Pastoral Council Chair Percy Stricklin has plans in place for an all-parish summit on April 9 and hopes that it’s “the voice of the parish” that guides the planning over the next three to five years.
When Chriszt departs, he’ll leave behind a church that has begun to write its own tradition, one that celebrates African-American worship with a tight-knit community and soulful masses. That’s what Chriszt will remember as he takes on whatever comes next for him—the song and art and music and dance shared by four communities that melded into one. Says Chriszt: “It’s one of the best places I have ever worshipped.”