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Detroit churches face up to downsizing

Detroit's struggles with a declining population and the near-death of the U.S. auto industry are well documented, but less well known are the travails of the local Catholic church, the latest institution in this failing city to face up to downsizing. 

Reuters photographer Mark Blinch and reporter John Stoll visited two churches in the run-up to Christmas, one abandoned, another under threat of closure.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

The inside of the Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Church, which closed in 2006, is seen in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2011. When a Catholic church closes, the land and buildings go back to the archdiocese. The neighboring parishes can come and take their pick of relics or ecclesiastical equipment. If a new tenant doesn't materialize, criminals sometimes do. Thieves often strip the building of copper or pluck out stained glass.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

A damaged organ at the abandoned Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Church.

The Martyrs of Uganda church, closed by the archdiocese in 2006, is today littered with rubble, collapsed confessionals and a broken organ. Moss grows on its floors. The windows are gone and support pillars are crumbling because stones have been removed.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Chris Mitchell walks up the stairs at the St. Leo Catholic Church, which was built more than 120 years ago.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

People stand as they take part in the Sunday mass at the St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2011. St. Leo, located in one of the most abandoned pockets of the nation's most depressed city, is operating on life support.

The second church they visited, St. Leo, is on life support. It remains an integral part of the community, helping to keep its neighborhood afloat with a soup kitchen as well as free medical and dental care for local residents. But it is among nine parishes earmarked for closure in the Detroit area within the next few years.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Larry Finklea eats his lunch at the soup kitchen in the basement of the St. Leo Catholic Church.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Jerry McCullough, left, gets a check up by Dr. Ed Jelonek, who is working on his own free time, at the Order of Malta Medical and Dental Clinic for low income Michigan residents in the basement of St. Leo Catholic Church.

The archdiocese has cut its parish count in Detroit's city limits to 59, down from 79 in 2000. The man in charge of the downsizing is Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who says he understands what's on the line at St. Leo and other churches.

"I am very attentive to the good work that the Holy Spirit has already got us doing ... it's not my job to rip that apart, it's my job to keep these good things going in the future," he said.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

A woman walks past the St. Leo Catholic Church, which is among nine parishes earmarked for closure in the Detroit area within the next few years.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

A woman prays during the Sunday mass at the St. Leo Catholic Church.

Read John Stoll's full report, Dark holiday in Detroit as church downsizes, and see more of Mark Blinch's pictures at Reuters' Photographers Blog.