The Surprise Boost of Mass Mobs
A twist on the Flash Mob is helping to save historic Catholic churches.
Illustration Credit: Tabernacle Series by Kara Waxman
A typical Sunday Mass at the historic Sweetest Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church on Detroit’s East Side is an all-too-quiet gathering. Despite the building’s grand edifice, the congregation is humble—usually around 150 parishioners—leaving the pews that were built to seat 1,400 achingly empty.
It’s an increasingly common problem, especially in Rust Belt cities, where population loss has led to shrinking attendance at Catholic churches. Less participation means less money in the offertory baskets each week, putting these historic sanctuaries on shaky financial ground.
But earlier this year, something of a miracle happened: one Sunday morning in July, more than 1,800 people showed up for Mass at Sweetest Heart, packing the church so tightly that the faithful were standing in the aisles. They were there for Sunday services, yes, but they were also there to partake in something much larger: a nationwide movement known as “Mass Mob.”
Like Flash Mobs, Mass Mobs use social media to gather people together at a specific time and place—but that’s where the similarities end. While Flash Mobs rally folks for seemingly spontaneous, often silly events, such as street art performances or public pillow fights, Mass Mobs assemble large congregations for services at historic Catholic churches to call attention to these sacred spaces. The goal is to give the churches a much-needed financial and emotional boost, while participants get to revel in a rich spiritual experience.
The country’s first Mass Mob was the brainchild of historic church activist Christopher Byrd of Buffalo, New York. Using social media to get the word out, he chose to hold the inaugural Buffalo Mass Mob at Saint Adalbert Basilica, an opulent Polish church built in 1890, that was drawing just 100 parishioners a week. Byrd hoped an additional 60 to 100 people might show up that day—but when 450 people flooded into the basilica’s ornate halls, he realized the idea had struck a chord. So he planned a second Mass Mob—this time at an old Irish-Catholic church where an Associated Press reporter was among those packing the pews. After that, the movement took on a life of its own, popping up in places like Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—cities with an abundance of old, architecturally significant churches.
Though the Mass Mob idea is a little more than a year old, it’s already making an impact. Detroit Mass Mob has raised $47,000 in just four gatherings; organizers estimate that’s $40,000 more than the average combined intake of one regular Sunday Mass at those churches. That extra money can go a long way to help to, say, pay for heating bills or keep up with the maintenance demanded by a 100-plus-year-old building.
And while Mass Mob participants are giving back to churches, they’re getting something huge in return. Byrd says he sees this movement as a catalyst for an energized Catholic community, where people are reconnecting with their spirituality and religious heritage by joining together in worship at these ancestral churches. “People from all over want to be part of this, and that creates a beautiful sense of community among Catholics,” he says. “Not only are you in these glorious old churches—and they don’t build them like this anymore—there are hundreds of people celebrating Mass with you. It’s really uplifting.”