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By Catherine E. SchoichetBENSALEM, Pennsylvania (CNN) It wasn’t something Msgr. Edward Deliman expected to find inside the church offering basket: an angry message, scrawled on the back of a check.”No more Spanish in the bulletin,” the note said. “Tell them to speak English.”Deliman’s parish, Saint Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church, is more than 100 years old. It began in 1903 with a small church built in memory of a railroad contractor who was the son of Irish immigrants and had a summer home nearby.Over the decades, a lot has changed: the names of priests in the pulpit, the size of the church and the number of people in the pews. But one thing stayed the same: Nearly all of the churchgoers were white.Now that, too, has started to shift.Last year, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced that the church would merge with Our Lady of Fatima, a largely Latino parish just a few miles down the road.Deliman is easing his church into a new chapter.The note was left in the offering basket a year ago, when news of the merger was fresh. Since then, Deliman says, most parishioners have been more open minded. But to help them adjust, he’s trying to take it slow.It wasn’t until this summer that the two parishes started regularly celebrating Sunday Mass in the same space.Fatima remains open for special ceremonies, and a Saturday night Spanish Mass is still held at the church. As parishioners practice their faith at both locations, Deliman knows feelings of fear and uncertainty still bubble beneath the surface.Tensions and misunderstandings are inevitable when parishes merge even when the parishioners come from similar cultural backgrounds. It takes up to five years to combine two congregations smoothly, experts say.In time, Deliman believes his parishioners will come to understand each other. Right now, it’s his job to lead the way.And so, in late July, St. Charles celebrated its first Mass entirely in Spanish.”The face of our Church is changing,” he says. “The face of our nation is changing. The face of this parish is changing.”The priest plans to keep the church bulletin bilingual. And last year, he ordered new books for every pew. On the cover is a painting showing the face of Jesus in a collage of pink, brown and cream colored hues. The title is a message he hopes his parishioners will embrace with time: “Unidos en Cristo/United in Christ.”Faith and familiaritySolemn mourners file into the long wooden pews at St. Charles on a muggy summer morning.A soprano voice echoes through the huge hall as the funeral Mass begins. When the cantor announces which song she’ll sing next, few people open a hymnal. Almost everyone already knows the words.Here on the outskirts of one of America’s most Catholic cities where even Protestants have been known to describe their neighborhoods by the name of the Catholic parish nearby the words, music and rituals of Mass are a thread in the fabric of daily life.Deliman tries to offer solace as he begins his homily, pointing out that praying in the “familiarity of our parish church” is a source of comfort.In the past several months, he tells them, he’s presided over several funerals for “old time parishioners” from St. Charles. And 86 year old Claire Gradel, he says, was one of them devoted to the church and “unquestionably loyal.” For years, she helped with adult religious education and brought communion to the home bound. Claire, he says, has now been “freed from the knots of age and sickness and human frailty.””Don’t grieve and I know you won’t don’t grieve like those who have no hope,” Deliman says. “We Catholics can be a little quirky at times, but I truly believe that we are at our best when we gather together to pray.”He adds that in addition to grieving the loss of longtime parishioners, many mourners are pondering a larger question: “Who will replace them?””It’s a good question to ask,” he tells them.He pauses for a moment, then continues with the Mass, leaving the puzzle unsolved.Differences, and tension, in the pewsPopulation growth in this suburb just north of Philadelphia was once fueled by the arrival of European immigrants and their children. Now the demographics are shifting.
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