Closing Churches

Over at Fr. Z’s blog there an excellent post concerning the closing of churches.  It seems that Saint Ann Church in Buffalo was slated for closing.  The building needed $12 million in repairs and the local bishop made the decision to tear it down.  The parishioners appealed the decision to Rome and the Vatican’s response was “Not so fast.  The needed repairs aren’t enough of a reason to close the place.”  Clearly this decision  to overrule the local ordinary will have an impact on all potential church closings.

I find this decision very interesting because my current assignment, Saint John Nepomuk Chapel in Saint Louis, currently celebrating our 160th anniversary, was once on the closing list, but was spared, primarily because of its historical significance.  Saint John’s was founded by Bohemian immigrants in 1854.  It was the first Czech Roman Catholic church in the New World.

Screen shot 2014-02-10 at 4.38.09 PMUrban flight and the building of not one, but two interstate highways in the middle of the neighborhood meant that thousands of Czech immigrants moved out of the area.  Our church, which was once one of the largest in the Archdiocese now has just over 100 registered families.  On a good weekend we may have 100 people attending our two masses.

In 2008, rather than close the church,  Saint John’s was downgraded from a parish to a chapel.  We have no geographical boundaries so our membership comes from all over the Saint Louis area.  The pastor at the time became a chaplain and when he retired the decision was made to put a deacon in charge.  I am the second deacon to hold that position.  One important part of my job is to get priests to celebrate the two weekend masses, a task that seems to be getting more difficult every week.

Another part of the job is to find the money to keep things going.  Our current church building was built in 1897 after a tornado destroyed the previous structure.   Our church is one of the most beautiful in the Archdiocese.  Thankfully our current Archbishop, Robert Carlson, recognizes the value of the older churches (of which Saint Louis has many) and doesn’t seem inclined to close any of them.  The model of deacon as director will, no doubt, be adopted at other churches as the number of priests declines.

Father Z ends his post by saying, ”

“If you want something to happen, you have to work for it and pay for it.

Free exercise of religion isn’t free.  We have bills to pay.  If YOU want something – A, B, C… whatever – and you are unwilling to pitch in and put sweat or money or both into it, you will lose it.”

Ah, there’s the rub.  Many of our members are seniors living on fixed incomes.  Their ability to supply “sweat or money” ain’t what it Saint John Nepomuk Chapelused to be.  It’s a well-known fact, based on Pereto’s principal, that 20% of the people contribute 80% of the work and 80% of the money.  We rely on existing investments and the revenue from weddings and fund raisers to pick up the slack.  But, as we draw down the investment cash we put a limit on the number of years we can survive.    Plus our small pool of workers can only cook so much goulash before they get worn out.  Its also worth noting that some of our best workers have gone on to their reward in the last few years, a trend that will also continue.

So, the obvious answer is to evangelize–get more members.  But there are some big obstacles to overcome.  Ethnic churches seem to be declining everywhere.  In the early 20th century Saint Louis was made up of large ethnic communities with ethnic churches and schools.  A young Czech girl was likely to marry a Czech young man.  Ditto for the Irish, the Germans, the Italians and other ethnic groups.  Following World War II, when young men returned from the service (God bless them!) they began settling in the suburbs.  While they may have continued to attend their “home” church for a while, they sent their kids to neighborhood schools where they met other young people of other nationalities.  Now a Czech girl was likely to marry an Italian boy.  With each new generation their ethnicity was weakened.  Driving all the way downtown to attend a Czech church wasn’t that important to them.

So why not evangelize in the neighborhood?  That seems like a logical solution.  But again, nothing is ever simple.  Our neighborhood, once known as “Bohemian Hill” is now called Soulard.  It’s an urban area that has been rescued from decline and there are a lot of houses that have been renovated and there are also a number of condos.  There are also a lot of bars and restaurants.  When you mention “Soulard” to most Saint Louisans the first thing they think of is Mardi Gras.  Soulard holds the second biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the country.  Frankly the young people who are moving into the area aren’t coming so they can be close to a church, even though there are five Catholic churches in the area.  The church-going Catholic has a lot of choices.  Meanwhile the neighborhood is crowded most weekend nights with partiers.

So, what’s the answer?  I wish I knew.  If the Vatican is discouraging the closing of churches, more city parishes are going to find themselves in the same situation.  I’m hoping that some readers will have experience with successful turnarounds.  If you have, I’d love to hear from you.  What works?  What doesn’t?  How do we use our resources to spread the faith and to save these beautiful churches?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Presentation of the Lord

Homily for the weekend of February 1-2

I’d like to start today with a question.  Why are you here?  Why do you come to mass?  What is it that draws you to mass?  I see mostly the same faces every week, so there’s something here that you want; something here that you need.  But, what is it?


I also see some new faces.  You’re here looking for something and I pray that you find it today.


Hopefully your answer isn’t “it’s my Sunday obligation.”  I really don’t like that phrase.  It implies that coming to mass is something you have to do, like renewing your driver’s license or paying your taxes.  I don’t believe God wants you here because you think you have to be here.  I believe He wants you here because you love Him; because you want to be here.


Maybe a better question might be, “What do you get out of coming to mass?”  Do you leave church feeling better than you did when you came in?  If so, why?  If not, why are you here?


I thought about all this as I was praying on today’s Gospel, the story of Simeon.  It’s a short reading, just 18 verses, but there’s a lot there, almost too much to cover in one homily.  There are only five players in the story and one of them is too young to speak, even though He’s the central character in the drama.  In fact, the only one who does speak is Simeon.  Ask yourself, which one of these people do you identify with?


This is the only time we hear about Simeon and Anna in the whole New Testament, but it’s a pivotal story.  Mary and Joseph have brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, as Luke says, “just as it is written in the law of the Lord.”  Mary and Joseph were faithful, observant Jews.  They had come to make a sacrifice. In this instance, the Holy Family were fulfilling an “obligation”.

They meet Simeon, a “righteous and devout” man.  “The Holy Spirit was upon him.”  He’s waiting to see the Messiah.  You might say that Simeon was the very first Christian.  He came to the temple to seek Jesus.  No one had ever done that before.


Luke doesn’t tell us how Simeon knew that Jesus was the One, but he did know.  He took Jesus in his arms, blessed God, and says his famous prayer;  “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace….”  That’s why Simeon was in the temple.  He was looking for peace.  Maybe that’s why you and I are here.  We’re looking for peace, too.


The next part is very interesting.  Luke says that Mary and Joseph were “amazed” at what Simeon said.  A popular phrase in today’s litigious world is “what did he know, and when did he know it?”  It something we ask about politicians all the time.  Obviously, Simeon’s words were a revelation to Jesus’ parents.


“You yourself a sword will pierce.”  Moms, you know what he meant.  Seeing your son run through with a sword is just as painful, just as real, as if the cold steel had penetrated your own body.  Imagine if someone said these words to you.  How would you feel?


Then we have Anna, an elderly woman who actually lived in the temple.  She worshipped “night and day with fasting and prayer.”  She gave thanks to God and “spoke about the Child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”  Anna was in the temple to worship God.  Maybe that’s why you and I are here.  I hope so.


Five people—three pretty good reasons to be in church.  Anna was there to worship and give thanks to God.  Simeon was there to find Jesus and to find peace.  And Mary and Joseph were there to fulfill a religious obligation.  Jesus was there because He’s God.  Where else would He be?


While I was preparing these comments for today, I asked my wife why she goes to mass.  She said it gives her hope; another great reason to be here.  We come to worship God, to receive Him in the Word and in the Eucharist.  We’re reminded that anything is possible with God, even turning bread and wine into Jesus Body and Blood.


We live in a messed up world.  The time between masses is a time where we’re tempted and pressured to forget about God.  We’re all just so busy.  I became a deacon so I could serve His people.  I was very idealistic.  I thought I would spend a lot of time in prayer and ministry.  It turns out I spend a lot of time pushing paper, filling out forms, going to meetings, dealing with the physical demands of a 160 year old church, and dealing with a thousand things that anyone could do. Do I spend your money to have the parking lot plowed and salted or do I wait and hope that the snow will melt?   It’s all about serving God and you, but sometimes the spiritual side takes second place.


Last week I visited Otto Stanovsky at the hospital.  As I was leaving I stopped to visit with a lady whose mother was about to die.  I talked to her and prayed with her and thought to myself, this is why I was ordained and I don’t do nearly enough of it.


I know your lives can be the same.  You have good intentions about praying and doing good works.  But somehow the days and weeks go by and you’re pulled in a hundred different ways.  Thanks be to God that we have this hour, this time in God’s house, to get away from all that and do what Christians are called to do.  Whichever character in today’s Gospel we identify with, our time at mass is a time to recharge our spiritual batteries.  This is the time to forget our problems and put them in God’s hands.  This is the time to cleanse our minds and focus on what’s really important.


In just a few minutes we’ll have the opportunity to take Jesus into our bodies.  It’s not symbolic.  It’s not a meaningless ritual.  It’s real.  It’s the gift God gives us to fortify ourselves against the bad things in this world.  Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven.  For that we should give Him praise and worship.  In return, He gives us peace, joy, and hope.  That’s why you and I are here.