Rebirth of Yonkers parish reflects Asian surge in U.S. church

Rebirth of Yonkers parish reflects Asian surge in U.S. church

In a key sign of the times, a recently shuttered parish in Yonkers, New York, has found a new lease on life – not by serving a traditional East Coast Catholic population, but rather the area’s surging Indian community. Most Holy Trinity Parish held its last Sunday Mass on July

In a key sign of the times, a recently shuttered parish in Yonkers, New York, has found a new lease on life – not by serving a traditional East Coast Catholic population, but rather the area’s surging Indian community.

Most Holy Trinity Parish held its last Sunday Mass on July 31, 2015, a casualty of what was at the time the largest parish reorganization plan in the 206-year history of the Archdiocese of New York.

Established in 1895 primarily for Slovak immigrants in an old section of Yonkers called “the Hollow,” not far from the factories where those immigrants worked, at its peak Holy Trinity was drawing 1,000 families a week to Sunday Mass, but by the end that number had dropped to 120.

The mills and factories those Slovak Catholics labored in closed long ago, and the parish’s school shut down in 1986. For the most part, the Slovak population began moving away in the 1970s.

Alice Potanovic, a longtime parishioner, compared the closing last year to “a death in the family,” vowing to continue coming to Mass “until I see Father put the key in the door.”

On Saturday, however, Holy Trinity was back in business, though not serving Slovaks or any other traditional group. Instead, it’s the new home of St. Mary’s Malankara Catholic Church, which serves a largely Indian congregation.

The Syro-Malankara Church is one of 23 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome, and it’s one of two centered in India known as the “St. Thomas churches” (the other is the Syro-Malabar Church.)

Known as the “Holy Qurbono,” the Syro-Malankara rite of the Mass is drawn from the same West Syrian tradition as the Maronite Church and the Syriac Catholic church. It’s heavy on ritual, gesture, symbols, and music, and preserving its distinctiveness is generally a major concern for Syro-Malankara Catholics.

The Syro-Malankara Church claims roughly 500,000 followers worldwide, with 14 bishops and 550 priests, and is currently led by Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, who’s also the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

The new congregants at Holy Trinity say they may eventually change the name of the parish to reflect its new identity. It becomes the first official Malankara Catholic church in Westchester County, after 17 years during which the Indian congregation worshiped at a Salesian high school.

The shift at Holy Trinity reflects growth in the local Indian population. The number of Asian Indians in Westchester rose to more than 14,000 from just under 3,500 between 1980 and 2000, according to the United States Census Bureau.

That spike, experts say, can be traced to a 1965 change in U.S. immigration law that dropped quotas based on national origin. Instead, occupation became the main factor, enabling Indian doctors, engineers and other professionals to get visas and green cards.

Once that happened, those new arrivals were able to sponsor their relatives, in many ways mimicking immigration patterns from the 19th century.

Although the largest demographic shift in U.S. Catholicism in recent decades has been its surging Hispanic component, the rise of strong Asian communities, including Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and Indians has also been notable.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, whites now represent 59 percent of the American Catholic population of roughly 67 million, Hispanics 34 percent, and Asian-Americans three percent.

In the Western U.S., however, Asians represent almost ten percent of the overall Catholic total.

According to 2010 U.S. census data, there are an estimated 150,000 Indian Catholics in the United States, out of a total Indian population of 3.2 million. Though exact numbers are elusive, best-guess estimates also hold that roughly 1,000 priests from India are currently serving in the United States.

Overall, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University estimates there are roughly 3 million Asian-American Catholics.

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