Churches come and churches go. They are means to an end. When there is need for a church, a church is built. When there is no need – or these days no desire – for a church, the church falls into desuetude and is usually overwhelmed by time, entropy and other forces.
It can be sad, especially when there are people in the places where the crumbling churches are found, who just don’t care. It is sad when our wounds are self-inflicted.
The cold slap of reality is that, if for one reason or another people don’t pay the bills, they lose their churches.
It is also the case that some priests and bishops would rather burn churches to the ground, pour bleach into the hole and then sow the fields with salt rather than try something new… by which I mean something traditional.
A long-time reader sent this story from the paper of his home town, Fall River, MA. My usual treatment has been applied.
Shame and comfort as Fall River’s churches fall
Herald News Staff Reporter
On my desk, in the right hand corner, is a well-used copy of a paperback book. Someone gave it to me, although I have another copy at home, one of my dead father’s books.
The little book is a history of Notre Dame Church, printed in 1925, written in French, a language I speak better than I read, as did most of my French-Canadian ancestors, back there in 1925, when not being able to read was common.
I was baptized in Notre Dame Church, as was my father. My mémère and pépère were married in that church, and my father attended Notre Dame School, and was an altar boy. He was in the 1938 first graduating class of Monsignor Prevost High School, located very near the old church.
The original church burned to the ground. My family was living in Kansas City, but the fire made the evening news. My father was not an emotional man, but his eyes were full of tears as he watched the 10-second news clip of Notre Dame burning.
They replaced the old Notre Dame with a new church that looked like an insurance office, like all new churches. [Well. To be fair, some of them look like municipal airports.] Not long ago, Notre Dame merged with a nearby church and became St. Bernadette’s.
On the streets around the church is the old orphanage, the house of the Christian Brothers who taught here, the rectory, the convent, and a closed grade school.
Done on Irving Street. Done on Thomas Street. Done on Earle Street. Done on County Street. Done in the buildings that housed the French funeral homes. Done in the corner stores, the places like Vaillancourt’s, where my father did business in French well into the 1960s, speaking to the women he called “Les dames Vaillancourt,” which means “The Vaillancourt ladies,” in English. [Lot’s of life the way it was is now “done”.]
Done. Done at St. Mathieu’s. Done at Ste. Anne’s. Done at St. Louis de France. Done at Dominican Academy. Done on Pleasant Street. Done on Arizona Street.
No matter how many lights blazed, or how many candles were lit, there was something dark about those old churches, dark laced with the smell of incense and the echoing sound of the door to the confessional closing, and the stares of the calm-eyed statues.
Immigrants built them as big as the mills where the boss couldn’t speak your language and called you names.
[NB] “Here we are!” those old churches said. “We are poor, but we have made this so we will have something of our own, something everyone can see.” [The faith of many having thin means made great and beautiful things because the wanted them.]
The little book I have says that when they dedicated the bells in the tower of the old Notre Dame, 15,000 people showed up for the celebration. Compare that to the vote total in Fall River’s last election.
And the little book is all I have, all that is left.
Oh, they’re still going to Mass at St. Bernadette’s, still driving or walking the narrow streets that lead to the church, but they’re worried about money.
[NB] We see it in bits and pieces, so we miss the whole, but the dismantling of the physical structure of the Catholic Church in Fall River is a huge story. [Read on.]
For a long time, the Church operated what was very nearly a parallel government. [No. People provided in charity what people are supposed to provide. Now, people have abdicated their moral and religious obligations to The “Mommy” State.] It provided health care, services to the poor, education, registration of births, marriages and deaths, many of the things we now expect from government.
The parish churches were the bones of a living thing. Even now, the old Catholic churches, open or closed, are the biggest structures in a lot of neighborhoods, and usually the only really beautiful building in the neighborhood.
[QUAERITUR:] Will our monument be the free-standing plaza with a dollar store, a drug store, a laundromat, and a place to buy discount cigarettes? Even in the suburbs, where the people have more money than they do in Fall River, they do not, and cannot, build anything like the huge and beautiful churches that even poor Fall River neighborhoods once took for granted. Will future generations guess what kind of people we were by looking at the ruins of a “fulfillment center,” or a marijuana “grow facility”?
I’ll keep the little French book. It shames me, and it comforts me as the churches come down all around me.
Friends, if when you get dressed in the morning, you discover that you have buttoned your shirt incorrectly, off by one, do you shrug and just go forward into your day, with your shirt askew? You could. After all the shirt is buttoned, right? What difference does a button or two make, when the shirt stays closed in front. Orrrrrrr, like normal – sane – people do you say, “Hmmm, that won’t do!”, and then undo the error by unbuttoning your misbebuttoned garment, and then button it back up the way that works the best? That’s what we are facing. We’ve been buttoning our shirts wrongly. It’s time to unbutton, doublecheck and start buttoning again.
Friends, if when you set out on a trip from Chicago to, say, Fall River where the story above is set, and you find yourself after some hours of driving in, say, Wichita, but you really have to go to Fall River, do you say, “Oh well, if I drive around long enough, I’ll get to Fall River”, and continue on your errant and inefficient path? Or, do you stop the car, check the map, turn around and drive back the other way?… the way toward Fall River and not away from it?
Friends, if when you are building a F you see that none of the pilings were either straight or driven deeply enough into the ground…
Friends, if when you decide finally to build that sailboat from scratch, you see that you didn’t seal the hull….
Friends, if when you try parachuting for the first time… hmmm… there are those times when it is perhaps better to have planned ahead, thwarted the fatal flaw in your cunning plan. Orrrrrr, what if the guy who trained you for the jump taught you the wrong way to pack your chute.