Why I love old churches

| Tom Lynn | October 18, 2011 | 8 Comments

A few years back, travel for work brought me to St. Louis for the weekend. A younger co-worker traveling with me went online and found the nearest church to the hotel for us to attend Mass on Sunday morning. We set out early for the 15-minute walk to the single Sunday liturgy.

As we walked from our downtown hotel, our surroundings turned more industrial, then older industrial, and then abandoned industrial. We found the church nestled by an overpass, which had obviously appeared long after the carefully constructed little brick structure had appeared. To the three other sides of the church were empty factory buildings with broken windows, and a weed-strewn lot with evidence of an old foundation poking through the rubble on the ground. The church itself was quiet, and locked, only 10 minutes before the scheduled Mass.

“I guess the website wasn’t updated, this church looks closed,” I told my friend.

He said, “I really don’t like old churches, anyway, I like the new ones that aren’t so serious and have more energy.”

“I love old churches,” I replied, “so let’s look around.”

We decided to walk around the church to examine and admire the ancient architecture. When we arrived back at the front door, a few cars had pulled up, and a few people were filing in through the tall wooden doors, fastened with giant black iron hinges. We went in after them, and I walked around the inside as more people straggled in.

The events celebrated in the windows and icons were Eastern European with a date reading 1956. I went to our pew and prepared for Mass, still looking around at the array of fascinating ornamentation of the interior.

Preparing the way

All of the people in the pews were elderly, in fact, very elderly, save one small delegation of families with an infant wrapped in baptismal attire. This lonely old church was being sustained by parishioners of a prior age, while seemingly a special event had brought in the following generations from the suburban parishes.

I studied the faces of the longtime parishioners, who must have drawn such strength from this milieu during much harder times. The blight surrounding the church, and the age of the buildings, showed this had been the refuge of the immigrant poor during the early Industrial Age, before organized labor and legal reforms gave a measure of protection and economic leverage to the working class.

As the Eucharistic Prayer progressed, I felt so deeply in communion with both those there celebrating with Christ and me and those who had come before. I saw the depressions in the kneelers where they had offered up their sufferings, praying for a better life for their children.

They worked before health insurance or managed care existed for laborers, before worker’s comp or sick days. They worked in pain, with injury and sickness. They drew their strength in this little church as they built a better country, a better life for us, their children and grandchildren.

Many of these churches are sparsely attended now, or closed, as the children and grandchildren reaped the benefits of earlier sacrifices, moved to the suburbs, and built their own, new parishes. In areas where urban renewal or regentrification have not taken root, many of these chapters of our faith history are passing.

The first faithful

I was kneeling in prayer after receiving Communion when I saw her. A post-octogenarian woman made her way up the aisle toward the Blessed Sacrament, unaided, but with great difficulty from the wounds of time and manual labor over many years; a grizzled warrior whose great dignity suffused the area around her like incense; a paragon of undying fidelity from a bygone era, still praying in the church where she received her first Communion.

A tear came to my eye, and then more. As I sniffled a bit in the quiet aftermath of Communion, I sensed my young friend’s head turn inquiringly. “Allergies,” I whispered.

St. Ignatius once said that should his life’s work in founding and building the Jesuits be dissolved, it would take him about 15 minutes of prayer and meditation to get over it and serve the church in a new ministry.

In the same way, I understand that the needs of the Church trump the needs of a church.

Growing communities need new parishes to minister to them, and when parishes no longer fulfill their original “raison d’etre,” good stewardship requires resources to be directed to the faithful elsewhere. I am grateful to find those places, though, where I can still enjoy entwining the experience of my faith with those that came before me.

Tom Lynn is a hockey agent and lawyer based in St. Paul and on any given day can be found in one of the beautiful old parishes in St. Paul.

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Category: Arts and Culture

  • Lynn McFarland

    Beautifully written and true!!!

  • Chad Crow

    Appreciation for precious possessions are often cultivated over a period of time. Old churches are a little like grandparents. Neither are particularly efficient, effective or teaming with energy. But after we reflect on them on bit, likely we will discover a history that is both remarkable and compelling. While new neighborhoods and communities do need to build new churches, parents should take their young and not so young families around the archdiocese to experience the treasures these older churches hold – both in brick and mortar, and especially the treasures in the pews. 

  • Vicki Simpson

    Great article.  I too love the connection I feel to previous generations when in an older church.  When I’m in the back of an older church with a baby, I can’t help but think of my grandmother caring for my mother in the same way.  It is lovely.  I only wish the newer buildings carried more of the beauty that our predecessors put into these older churches.

  • LL

    This article has given me a new appreciation for the Community served in all historic churches. Thank you for this beautifully written insight. 

  • Carmen Abber

    Excellent article! 
    Tom, you are fortunate to see beauty in historical churches and fully
    appreciate their human value.  Thanks for
    pointing out that it is possible to find old churches, if we take the time to look
    for them.  I look forward to finding old
    churches and taking a glance to the life of our ancestors’ lives through their
    ancient remains.

  • Raul Diaz

    I agree with LL,Carmen Abber and the other old church commentators:
    After reading Tom Lynn’s excellent article,me too had ” allergies ” in my eyes,since
    I remembered that in Quito there is a street with seven very old churches.It takes
    seven hours to decide to which church to go in,since these old churches had been
    fulfilling a great need for more than 100 years.Nice article,keep it up Tom lynn.

  • Marie

    I appreciate the beauty of these old churches and wish all windows, statues, etc were recycled into new buildings when the old ones close.  My experience has been that very few people go to see newer churches; why should they when they look no different than a meeting hall? 
    I’ve heard it said that a church is the palace of the poor.  I remember when I was little, I had never seen such a pretty place as our church, or anything as beautiful as the monstrance.  I still go there when I can. 

  • Davehansen

    Imagine what we would be missing if every time a new hymn was composed we had to delete another.