Tradition and Transformation: Ascension Parish and North Minneapolis

Students learn about immigration, diversity and community

Situated in what was once the single-largest Jewish neighborhood between Chicago and Denver, Ascension Catholic School in North Minneapolis had a student population before 1960 that was mostly Irish Catholic. Now, students come from many faiths and most are African-American or children of African immigrants. Those who attend Mass at the Church of the Ascension, moreover, are Hispanic, South African or Caucasian. Ascension Parish has seen many changes to its neighborhood in its 115-year history and has tried to form an inclusive community.

More than 300 St. Thomas students took on the ambitious task of recording and reflecting on the history of Ascension Parish and how it has served and could serve its North Minneapolis neighbors. Students learned about race relations and immigration, immersed themselves in the community and connected with the people.

St. Thomas students usually don’t spend much time in North Minneapolis because of its perception as an unsafe neighborhood and its lack of retail, restaurant or leisure attractions. Dr. Ellen Kennedy and 11 other faculty members wanted to open students’ eyes to experiences unlike their own and take them out of their comfort zones. The Ascension project faculty created included goals of showing students how communities undergo change and how to embrace diversity. The interdisciplinary collaboration, conducted throughout three semesters, involved 14 classes in sociology, marketing, philosophy, history, geography, public relations, theology, communication, health, art history and Spanish.

“This project is a good example of the kind of outreach programs appropriate to an urban university,” said Father Dennis Dease, St. Thomas president, who worked at Ascension Parish as a camp counselor, coach and painter in 1963 and 1964 during his seminarian days. “The city, its history and culture can serve as a rich lab for student learning. And students and their teachers, through the kind of research they engage in, can be of real service to the city.”

Ascension Parish, on the corner of 18th Avenue N. and Bryant Avenue N., is just west of Interstate 94. The oldest Catholic church in the neighborhood still standing, it was chosen for the St. Thomas project because of its prominence on the North side.

At one time, Ascension church and school had a swimming pool, dance studio, auditorium-gymnasium, bowling alley and boxing club, amenities that attracted local youth and became a place of friendly interactions among whites, Jews and blacks.

Harry Davis, who was a member of the Ascension boxing club and who is a member of the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame, was on the Minneapolis board of education for 20 years. He was the first black candidate endorsed for Minneapolis mayor.

The Minneapolis Lakers practiced in the Ascension gymnasium in the 1940s and 1950s before they moved to Los Angeles.

Ascension’s neighborhood has had many incarnations. The North Side always has offered affordable housing, so it has been a welcome area for immigrants. When Ascension church was built in 1890, it was encircled by communities of Irish, Italians and Poles. Being one of the few places in the Twin Cities where Jewish people were allowed to settle, North Minneapolis housed many synagogues. Today it is home to many ethnic groups, mostly African-Americans.

“Why has this neighborhood experienced so much change? Why did many Jews and Irish leave? Why did African-Americans settle there and what were the interactions among different groups?” were some questions Kennedy hoped St. Thomas students would find the answers to.

Kennedy stayed an extra year in her three-year position as service- learning coordinator to complete the Ascension project. She thinks a more accurate term for service learning is community-based partnering. With doctorates in both sociology and marketing, she taught two courses in the project: a sociology class, Immigration, Fear and Hate; and a marketing research class.

Her marketing students discovered that West Broadway, one block north of Ascension, was one of the largest retailing areas in Minneapolis before the mid-1960s. Plymouth Avenue, four blocks south of Ascension, once looked like Grand Avenue in St. Paul does now: lined with small shops. Many Jews opened businesses along Plymouth because they were not allowed employment in non-Jewish businesses.

But things changed in the 1960s. The convenants restricting Jews from buying homes in the suburbs or in other parts of the city were lifted, so they began to move from the Ascension area. Racial unrest and the construction of Interstate 94 divided the neighborhood. In 1966, almost all the businesses on Plymouth Avenue were burned to the ground during urban riots.

Commercial success has not returned to the area as evidenced by the Broadway Target store, which recently closed. The area has moved from hosting predominantly for-profit businesses to the majority being nonprofit.

By comparing North Minneapolis with other areas of Hennepin County, the marketing students reported that “with few job opportunities for area residents, household incomes are much lower than average for the city and the county.”

Discovering other views

Dealing with diversity and new immigrant populations is nothing new for Ascension Parish. It once served more than 1,800 households, primarily Irish with some Germans and Poles, at its height in the 1960s. Today the parish is one-tenth that size and is composed of African-Americans, Hispanics, Southeast Asians, West Africans and Caucasians. It offers a Spanish Mass and two English-speaking Masses.

In 2000, just one year after he became pastor of Ascension, Father Michael O’Connell was approached by Kennedy about St. Thomas’ Ascension project. He was interested to learn more about parishioners who were very different from those at the Basilica of St. Mary, where he also serves as rector.

“The students have given us a much clearer picture of who lives here and the economic impact of that, and of the faith expectations and apprehensions of the people,” he said when the project was complete last spring. “It confirmed our need to reach out into the neighborhood.” O’Connell ’84 M.A. was ordained in 1967; he served on the St. Thomas board of trustees from 1992 to 1997.

Kennedy’s interest in the North Side began through her involvement with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. It had researched the migration of Jews from North Minneapolis to the suburbs.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get another side of the story, to look at the changing neighborhood from another point of view?” Kennedy said. Her enthusiasm caught on at St. Thomas.

Over three semesters the St. Thomas students:

  • Talked to Hispanic teens about relationships, dating and marriage
  • Researched access-to-health-care issues in the community
  • Talked to parishioners about family communication
  • Recorded oral histories documenting changing family patterns and structures, assimilation practices, Hispanic culture in family and worship, and patterns in Jewish-Catholic relations
  • Interviewed leaders at other churches that had immigration centers and recommended that Ascension develop a similar program
  • Researched area resources for the elderly and children because Ascension has high populations of both
  • Created maps detailing the demographic and age composition, single-parent household distribution, estimated property value and Catholic church distribution around Ascension
  • Interviewed World War II veterans of the parish to see if their views of Jews had changed as a result
  • Tutored Ascension school children
  • Surveyed, in English and Spanish, Mass attendees
  • Interviewed government, business, social service and housing experts
  • Created Web-based archives of parish materials and Web documentation of the project to serve as a model for future projects

Students seemed transformed by the people they met.

“Several of my students said that doing oral histories was an eye-opening experience,” said Rabbi Barry Cytron, whose Modern Judaism undergraduate students interviewed Jews who had grown up on the North Side. “It occurred to many of them that they need to interview their own grandparents before it’s too late; that’s a wonderful lesson!” Cytron is the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish Christian Learning at St. Thomas and St. John’s University.

“The Ascension Project has taught us about the struggles of a parish community in a more challenging area, financially and physically,” students Kate Boran and Lindsay Sand wrote in their final report for a Spanish class. “All of the people that our class interviewed stressed that community building and support were their main objectives, so that Ascension can have a more unified, yet diverse, parish. We were able to understand the goals of a challenged parish, which are oftentimes different from our home parishes in Minnesota or wherever we might live. As different challenges face these people, you can still identify the common thread: faith.”

Along with St. Thomas and Ascension, other project partners were the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and the Phillips center. Both organizations work to increase interreligious dialogue and understanding. The project also received internal and external grants from The Aquinas Foundation, Minnesota Campus Compact, the Council for Independent Colleges, the Bush Foundation and the College of Arts and Sciences dean.

Student recommendations

Since Monsignor John Dunphy, who led Ascension from 1925 to 1955, opened the parish’s facilities to blacks and Jews, it has strived to immerse itself into its community. Dunphy previously worked at St. Thomas for 21 years as football coach, dean of studies, director of athletics and vice rector.

“An important goal at Ascension is to grow a multicultural Catholic community that can serve not only the parish, but the larger community, as well,” said Patricia Stromen, parish administrator. She feels that the parish might have lost its sense of serving the larger neighborhood in the 40-some years since Ascension’s neighborhood was bisected by the freeway.

Most of the newer parishioners are Hispanic. Although the Spanish Mass offered is the best attended of all the Ascension Masses, only few of the Hispanic attendees actually reside in the same ZIP code as the parish.

To help understand Hispanic parishioners’ needs and expectations, students in a sociology course, Marriage and Family, sat in on youth group gatherings. Struck by the participants’ openness about their feelings, the students recommended that Ascension Parish continue the youth-group forums to create a similar atmosphere involving youth and their families. In their final report, the students also suggested the parish hold holiday dinners and encourage parents to participate. They also recommended that Ascension hold English-as-a-second-language classes to help non-English-speaking immigrants.

Similarly, students in Kennedy’s Immigration, Fear and Hate course recommended that Ascension create an immigration welcome center. Students visited an immigration center at St. Odilia and interviewed administrators at the Basilica of St. Mary to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Marketing research students described housing issues, the business climate, services for children and senior citizens, and economic and educational needs in the area. They recommended strategies for strengthening the relationship between the faith and business communities.

The Ascension project is complete, but St. Thomas’ involvement with the North Side continues.

“We’re not ending our presence on the North Side,” Kennedy said. “St. Thomas is working with the Neighborhood Development Center to help economic development in immigrant and economically disadvantaged communities.”

Kennedy could not be happier with the results from the Ascension project. “I had hoped that students would learn about the richness of human diversity in its many forms. I know my students certainly did. I hope they learned how to apply their academic discipline in ways that can make a difference in the community, that they can use their chosen careers not only to do well but to do good. I hope they discovered that learning can be really fun, meaningful, engaging and transforming.”