“as the churches come down all around me”

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.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Our Catholic Identity, The Coming Storm, The future and our choices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Unwilling says:

    Brilliant shirt analogy!

    Why (intention) did “he” tell me the wrong ways to seal the hull, pack the chute?

  2. UncleBlobb says:

    I would think that if the guy driving didn’t want to go to Fall River in the first place, he wouldn’t mind not getting there, and would not check the map.

  3. yatzer says:

    To continue the analogy of driving the wrong way, maybe there has been a kidnapping?

  4. Aquinas Gal says:

    Very sad about the churches in Fall River. Yes the poor immigrants built magnificent churches.
    One that is still in use is in Clinton, MA–St John’s Church. It has breathtaking artwork for the Stations of the Cross. It’s one of the most beautiful and imposing churches I’ve ever visited–and it was built in a mill town by poor immigrants who didn’t skimp when it came to their faith.

  5. JustaSinner says:

    This is what happens when the soul is promised and craves a substantial banquet, but is tossed stale saltine crumbs instead…

  6. iPadre says:

    Sad times. As some areas are growing, New England is deader than dead. Since the scandal opened in Boston, parishioners have fled in droves. Soon, we will be rebuilding from the ground up. I await in hope Our Lord’s promised triumph. This mess is all in God’s hands. We do what we can, but He will work the miracle.

  7. youngcatholicgirl says:

    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.]
    Some look like they were carved out of soap (one in St. Louis).
    I have been told of a church in Clayton, Missouri, that looks like a Lay’s potato chip (yet to see that for myself).
    And some (namely, my parish) look like a Pizza Hut.

  8. cwillia1 says:

    Churches come and churches go. This happens. I guess that’s the story in Algiers. But this church was abandoned by Catholics who abandoned a communal way of life for the secularized suburbs. There is a beautiful church in a depressed neighborhood. Catholics should be snapping up all the real estate within a one mile radius. They could walk down the street and pray anytime they are inspired to do so. Their children could walk to a safe and quality school where they would learn the faith. Families would be surrounded by other families that shared the same values. They could patronize local businesses owned and operated by their friends. But this doesn’t happen and we should ask why.

  9. Ave Maria says:

    Yes, I have heard that the Catholic Church in Massachusetts is on life support. And until a return to truth and tradition is promoted, it will continue to need oxygen. I have been to Fall River and to the Shrine of St. Anne although the last time I was there, I could not get into the upper church but only in the crypt. But a priest was waiting in the confessional and I took advantage of that! That was last summer. There are some very beautiful churches over in New Bedford which is in the diocese, especially the church of St. Anthony….anyone in the vicinity should visit there.

  10. teachermom24 says:

    “People provided in charity what people are supposed to provide. Now, people have abdicated their moral and religious obligations to The “Mommy” State.”

    This past Sunday–Easter Sunday–I could not and did not assent to one of the petitions offered in the “Prayers of the Faithful”, something to the effect that “Civil leaders realize ways to provide for the needy in our communities.” No! That is not their job; it’s our job, the job of the Church and those who call themselves Christian.

  11. BJard says:

    Father Z, thank you for addressing the nanny state! At times it feels like it has crushed part of my soul

  12. PTK_70 says:

    “…If my ‘chute don’t open wide,
    I got a reserve by my side.
    If that one should fail me, too,
    Look out below I’m a-comin’ through.
    Tell my mama I done my best,
    And bury me in a leaning rest.”

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  14. iPadre says:

    Ave Maria asked about St. Anthony’s in New Bedford. It is definitely worth the trip. There are 5,500 lights in that church, only lit for special occasions. And when they are all on, it is amazing. Do a search, there are some great pics online.

  15. Charivari Rob says:

    In my experience of Massachusetts and [i]some[/i] of the rest of New England, the Church is neither on life support nor dead (nor deader, either (whatever that might entail)).

    I do not pretend that everything is great or assured, but it is not dire (as those other characterizations would suggest).

    I’m not a fan of closing or disposing churches. I don’t know why it was done in this case.

    A couple of things to think about, though…

    – urban neighborhoods can change, and what was seen as necessary or a good idea 80 years ago might be excess capacity and unaffordable to maintain today. There were (at least) three parishes in that neighborhood – Notre Dame de Lourdes in the middle, Immaculate Conception (which the writer describes as nearby – building looks closed on Google) which merged with Notre Dame to become St Bernadette, and Espiritu Santo. “Nearby” is an understatement. The merged churches are 1500 FT apart as the crow flies – the third church is 1100 FT from the “insurance office” Welcome to Massachusetts’ history of territorial & national parishes – I’ve been in a couple of places where they’re nearly across the street from each other.
    – “Dismantled”? Even assuming the area was more robust at the time of the fire, the demographic winds were blowing. The diocese could’ve found a way to walk away instead of rebuilding 30 years ago.
    – Also, the first pastor of the merged parish was Father Roger Landry (now on a different assignment). Solid, one of the good ones. The diocese didn’t send an empty suit.

    bonus – go to the parish website and read the beautiful recounting from Father Landry of the relationship of the parishes’ individual names and the choice of name for the merged parish.

  16. M. K. says:

    As a native of the Diocese of Fall River, I concur with Ave Maria and iPadre – St. Anthony’s is definitely worth a visit! On the larger point of the article, it’s sad but true: even as recently as twenty-five years ago, Catholic churches and institutions – schools, large convents, etc. – were much more visible in the diocese than they are now, and the loss hasn’t been limited to parish closings but also includes a loss of brick-and-mortar presence as a lot of former schools and convents and the like have been torn down.

    There are a lot of dimensions to the problem, but I think that the role of the traditional liturgy is important: the only Sunday TLM in the diocese is on Cape Cod, far from cities like Fall River and New Bedford, and some weekday offerings of the TLM that used to on the schedule in a couple of parishes have disappeared. Offering the TLM won’t bring back the buildings that have been lost, but it could make a positive difference for some of the parishes that remain.

  17. majuscule says:

    Here on the West Coast a church built by Portuguese immigrants in the diocese of San Jose shares its space with the ICKSP Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory . It may offer the only TLM (Sunday and daily) in the diocese. Five Wounds Portuguese National Church is a very beautiful, ornate church.

    Bishop Athenasius Schneider recently offered Mass there, drawing people from all over the SF Bay Area.

  18. hwriggles4 says:

    My dad grew up primarily in the South. This town in Oklahoma is the County Seat, and several of the old churches (Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and at least one Baptist church) are located in a row on Washington Street. The external architecture is similar, like many of the older downtown areas with lots of churches.

    When I attended college as a retread, Church Street in College Station was the location of the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church (The Wesley Foundation and the Catholic Student Center were next door to each other), and a Lutheran Church (don’t recall if it was ELCA, WELS, or LCMS). The Episcopal Church was on the South side of campus, and the Hilleil foundation was also on the South end. The Catholic Church was built in 1958 and has more traditional architecture.

    What happens today in several dioceses is when a new church is planned, a building is constructed for a “worship center” with a chapel, meeting rooms, a hall, etc. If and when the congregation outgrows the “worship center”, it’s up to the congregation to raise funds to build the church, and the worship center becomes meeting space.

    While I have seen this model work in some parishes (quite a few churches are constructed to look like a church and not like a spaceship) it depends too much on parishioners, particularly since participation in fundraising for a large project like this is normally 25% of the parish.

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