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An especially diverse A.C. church hopes to stave off closure

ATLANTIC CITY - It has long been a place where displaced Catholics have been welcomed and accepted no matter their national origin or the color of their skin.

Gregg Kohl

ATLANTIC CITY - It has long been a place where displaced Catholics have been welcomed and accepted no matter their national origin or the color of their skin.

The ministry Emma "Mother" Lewis founded nearly 100 years ago for Catholics of color who were shunned by the white churches in the burgeoning resort came to be known as St. Monica's, and it may stand as one of the most diverse Roman Catholic congregations the Diocese of Camden oversees.

Although Atlantic City's three other Catholic churches now welcome all comers, each Sunday and at weekday Masses, African Americans, Filipinos, Haitians, Latinos, Liberians, Nigerians, Chinese, Ugandans, and whites still join hands and worship together at St. Monica's, tucked into a neighborhood along North Pennsylvania Avenue.

"This is truly a place of love and diversity," said Lois Shepperson, 86, of Atlantic City, a parishioner for more than 20 years. "Everybody here knows everybody, and no matter what nationality they are or what color they are, we are all welcomed, and welcome each other, equally."

But a plan by the diocese to reassess its church assets in Atlantic City, untouched by a sweeping 2011 plan that consolidated or closed churches and parochial schools across the region, might close St. Monica's or merge it with one of the three other parishes: St. Nicholas of Tolentine, St. Michael, or Our Lady Star of the Sea.

The closings three years ago elsewhere in the diocese, which consists of parishes of Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties, reduced the number of Catholic churches in the region from 124 to 68.

"We will be determining whether there is a future for the Catholic ministry in Atlantic City," said Peter Feuerherd, a spokesman for the diocese. "Right now, it's a question of how best to use our resources in the four parishes."

Feuerherd said that though no immediate figures were available on how many Catholics attend Mass weekly in Atlantic City parishes, there were an estimated 450,000 Catholics in the diocese. About 81,800 people attended Mass weekly in the diocese in 2014, down from 84,700 the year before.

The diocese has said there was no deadline for determining St. Monica's fate or that of the three other parishes. Feuerherd said the diocese was looking at weekly Mass attendance and how much money is collected during the offerings.

Though diocesan administrators would not allow St. Monica's officials to comment on the possible closing, the Rev. Yvans Jazon, St. Monica's pastor, implored parishioners from the pulpit on a recent Sunday, to help increase the number of attendees and to help raise the $20,000 it needs to pay off a loan from the diocese to stay open.

"Your mission is to bring people here," Jazon, a Haitian-born priest, said as he walked among the 50 parishioners and preached. "This is how we can fight this fight. If you love your church, you must fight to keep it open. We are not going to give up. We cannot allow what Mother Lewis worked so hard for to be taken away - that there is a church that welcomes everyone."

Masses are said regularly in English, Haitian Creole, and Spanish.

And though they stick to the basic format of a Catholic Mass - Gospel readings, a homily by the priest, and celebration of the Eucharist - the services at St. Monica's are a bit more spirited. Participants are encouraged to join hands, even across the main aisle, and form a human worship chain at key points during the service.

Rhythmic clapping and a sing-along atmosphere prevail when the small choir, accompanied by a drummer and two men on electric guitars, offers the hymns and prayer chants. When the spirit moves them, particularly after a lively selection, the congregation applauds.

All this takes place inside a modest wood-frame and stucco structure built in 1938 when the diocese sanctioned St. Monica's as a church; Mother Lewis had begun her ministry as a simple mission in a rented house on Delaware Avenue in 1917.

Unlike many larger, more modern Catholic churches in the region, St. Monica's is decidedly old-school, with leaded stained-glass windows and statuary of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Stations of the Cross from the early part of the 20th century. The wooden pews are nearly a century old, with creaky leather-topped kneelers.

"When I come here, this feels like home to me," said Kou Kargbo, 55, of Galloway Township, who attends each Sunday and who was at a special Mass on a recent weeknight for victims of the deadly Ebola virus. "It will break our hearts, really break our hearts, if this church closes. That is why we are fighting so hard and trying to get people to come here, to fill the pews."

Kargbo was among about 300 Liberians whose lives were spared "by the grace of God" during a 1990 raid on churches in that country by armed military forces who lobbed a bomb at a convent where she was praying. The bomb missed the building by inches.

"The windows all blew out, and no one was hurt. It was a miracle. But another church a few miles away was hit during the same attack, and everyone was killed," said Kargbo, who works as a psychiatric nurse at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital and who immigrated to the United States in 1999. "So when I come to this church I feel safe and I appreciate the feeling of peace and acceptance I find here."