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.