Gone Baby Gone: A Different Kind of Boston Crime--Churches for Sale
With this post, I'm inaugurating an alternating series of occasional posts of "Required" and "Non-Required" Reading. As I conceive the categories, "Required Reading" will highlight articles of a serious and/or lengthy nature. "Non-Required Reading" is likely to be shorterand/or more fun.
Whether I maintain these categories, or whether they will collapse, like the initial distinction Graham Greene drew between his serious works and "entertainments," only time will tell.
Though I'll flag noteworthy articles in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I also think it's useful to draw readers' attention to material that may not be mass market.
One of these is Architecture Magazine, which, in its December 2007 issue, covers a topic that will sadden all faithful Roman Catholics when it doesn't outrage them.
Writer Bradford McKee and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara have collaborated on "Church, Going," a long article (with series of images) on Roman Catholic properties – particularly in the Archdiocese of Boston, now closing 65 parishes – being put on the market.
The Dennis Lehane novel (and recent movie) Gone Baby Gone considered the ramifications of a kidnapping, exploring past history and its implications for the present. It’s a whodunit.
The crime of despoiling a critical element of American Catholic patrimony, in contrast, is being accomplished largely in broad daylight. Moreover, it is a whydunit.
The bills are coming due now on nearly a half-century of church misconduct related to the sex-abuse scandal. (Which, I’ve always maintained, was not a priest abuse scandal but an archbishop-supervision scandal.)
And it's not confined to Boston anymore: Last September, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the wake of a record $660 million sex-abuse settlement, evicted three nuns from a small convent in the downtrodden area of Santa Barbara. (Nice work, Cardinal Mahony. Really showing that spirit of charity!)
As the Architecture article points out, the number of Catholic parishes has fallen from 19,331 in 1995 to 18,634 in 2007. Although a population shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt accounts for some of the closures, the Church shouldn't take refuge in an upturn in demographics.
Sunday mass attendance has fallen from 74 percent in the late 1950s to about 33% today. Moreover, a phenomenon that helped the Church cope with previous migrations—the replacement of one ethnic group in a parish by another—may no longer be as operative as it once was: the influx of Hispanics is not having the sizable effect it should because of the inroads that charismatic faiths are making in this group.
Kenneth Gibson, the first African-American mayor of Newark, once observed: "Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first." The same might be said for Boston in the American Catholic church: The first to absorb the immigrant throngs in great numbers, after the Irish Potato Famine; the first archdiocese with a sexual abuse crisis on a catastrophic scale; and now, perhaps, the first to enter a “brave new world” in which they put a smiley face on the notion that less is more, at least when it comes to church buildings.
A beautiful example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture— the former Blessed Sacrament Church on Centre Street in Boston's Jamaica Plains section (seen in the picture accompanying this piece)—has been "suppressed" by the Boston Archdiocese since 2004.
The enormity of its ecclesiastical pillage is catalogued in the following paragraph:
"The absence of pews sends echoes throughout the eight enormous stone columns along the aisles, some of which have been stripped of their capitals. Beneath the soaring barrel-vaulted nave and the 135-foot-high dome, the eyes of painted prophets still stare down from the ceilings."
Since the Second Vatican Council, the laity have been told that we are the Church. These lost buildings are proof of this.
Far more than the executive-level decisions of archbishops, these buildings are theproducts of thousands – not just those who gave their hard-earned money over the years, but also architects, engineers, contractors, painters, sculptors, stained-glass craftsmen, and simple laborers who brought these works of art into being.
They were beautiful. Through no fault of their creators or the people who loved them, they are now being lost.
Don't think it can only happen in Boston. It can happen elsewhere. As a matter of fact, it is.
In a particularly heinous example, the Archdiocese of New York has been attempting these last few years to close St. Brigid’s, a surviving refuge for thousands of immigrants that came to the city in desperate flight from Ireland's Great Famine in the 1840s.
The archdiocese claims it has no plans to sell the building, but it has clearly acted in a high-handed fashion regarding its disposition. In July 2006, a judge asked the archdiocese and a committee formed to save the church to appear in her court for arguments concerning the building’s ownership.
Before the meeting could take place, a wrecking crew demolished the stained-glass windows and remaining pews. It was a crime against a faith community, a crime involving the defacement of art, and a crime against history itself, for among the demolished stained-glass windows were the names of victims of the Famine and of benefactors of the church.
I know, I know that buildings are less important than the spirit of charity that should animate a faith community, that the word "church" itself means community more than a physical structure, and that the most beautiful house of worship becomes lifeless without a compelling minister or vibrant, believing flock. And yet, all of this misses the point.
A church springs from a community and enhances it. It contains past, present and future—"the hopes and fears of all the years," in the lyrics of the Christmas carol. It is about commitment andendurance—words as rock-solid as the stone from which it is built.
The Roman Catholic Church didn't become the sprawling institution it is today with the instincts of CEOs closing underperforming locations. In a 1998 New York Review of Books essay, the late novelist John Gregory Dunne analyzed the career of James Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, who improbably abandoned a career in construction to enter the priesthood – and recalled enough about his old craft to dress down contractors who offered estimates he regarded as outrageously high. Together with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, he formed a kind of bicoastal axis of church empire builders.
I can just hear the dismay of many friends who recall these clerics' reactionary brand of ecclesiastical, military and socioeconomic politics. Nor will I defend the cardinals' actions or beliefs.
But compared with other would-be empire builders in the secular world—whether the malign neo-Roman schematics of Albert Speer or the more well-intentioned glass-box architecture of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe—they at least left structures of grace and beauty.
If at times (okay, lots of times) they ran their feifdoms like General Motors, at least they acted more like Alfred P. Sloan than Roger Smith, envisioning a broader world rather than a contracting one.
But right now, church leaders are in their Roger and Me mode—issuing press releases, ducking parishioners outraged by church closings as foolishly as they were sidestepping grand juries at the height of the sexual abuse crisis a few years ago.
It's time for the grandchildren and great-children of the people who built churches to save their spiritual homes before their spiritual landscape looks like Flint, Michigan.