Detroit — Regular parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Detroit couldn’t find a parking spot for Mass on May 4, and tears were flowing.
They were tears of joy.
St. Charles was the location of the second Detroit “Mass mob,” a fledgling movement of Catholic faithful designed to fill the city’s historic and often-struggling churches with the feeling of Sundays gone by.
With many once-thriving inner-city parishes a victim of urban sprawl the past several decades, weekend congregations have dwindled in some cases to just a few dozen people. Collections have plummeted as well, a recipe for an uncertain future.
So after parishioners in Buffalo, N.Y., took a twist to the idea of a “flash mob” to urge Catholics to attend a coordinated Mass at some of its historically significant churches, Detroiters began to take notice.
“The goal is to get as many people there as you can,” said Thom Mann, a financial adviser in Troy and parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo, who is helping coordinate Mass mobs in Detroit. “The more the better, because it generates so much more excitement.”
Organized through social media, an initial Mass mob drew about 300 people to St. Hyacinth Church in early April. A second one was held May 4 at St. Charles Borromeo, this time filling the 400-capacity church.
The response was nothing short of an emotional outpouring, Mann said.
“The choir sang louder than normal. Boy, just having a full church, it resonated so much better,” he said of the 102-year-old Romanesque Revival-style structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “People were crying in the church. That’s how awesome it was. We had people lined up. Outside, they were parked all the way down the street and around the block. It was awesome.”
But it wasn’t as simple as inviting a few friends, said Mann, for whom promoting the Mass mobs has become a sort of full-time hobby.
“I worked on that every day for two, three hours, contacting everybody — the newspapers, the TV stations, everybody. I worked really hard on that,” he said.
Social media has become the primary driver, with a Facebook group set up as a “hub” for future Mass mobs. After the success of St. Charles’ event, which included mainstream media coverage, the group “Catholic Mass Mob of Detroit” on Facebook is up to nearly 1,000 members. A website has also been set up at www.detroitmassmob.com.
A schedule of future “mobs” has been posted there, with the next one at Detroit’s St. Joseph Church at 11:30 a.m. June 29.
Mann said careful planning is critical to the movement’s continued success. That includes coordination with the host parishes, which need to ensure accommodations for the larger-then-expected crowd, such as enough Communion hosts. In the case of St. Charles Borromeo, it also included a request for a patrol car from the Detroit Police Department.
“I really feel it’s important (to let the churches know),” Mann said. “When I first approached Bro. Ray (Stadmeyer, OFM Cap., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo) and told him we wanted to do this, he said ‘what’s a Mass mob?’ And I had to explain a little bit.”
But after a little explanation, he said, “having that church filled really got everybody excited.”
One challenge initially was channeling the excitement into a coordinated effort. In addition to “Catholic Mass Mob of Detroit,” other Facebook pages also began showing interest. Now, Mann is working with those groups to promote a single schedule of future Mass mobs.
“That’s what the goal is, and we’re trying to get it centralized,” he said.
Regardless, drawing attention to the innovative project hasn’t been a problem.
“After we started going on this, somebody pointed out that they wrote about it in The Michigan Catholic,” Mann said. “It’s really picking up steam. I just don’t want it to die down.”
Next ‘Mass mob’
The next Mass mob will be at 11:30 a.m. June 29 at St. Joseph Church, 1828 Jay St., Detroit. Visit www.detroitmassmob.com for updates on future events.