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.

Friday of the 1st Week of Ordinary Time

The Two Blind Men (Matthew 9:27-31)

Obviously Jesus knew a little bit about human nature.  He was forever telling somebody not to talk about what He had done and invariably the person or persons would then go and blab it all over town.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals the two blind men.  “Jesus warned them sternly, ‘See that no one knows about this.”  What did they do?  “They went out and spread word of Him through all that land.”

Jesus didn’t have much of a marketing plan.  News of Him had to be spread by word of mouth.  And, it seems like the simplest way to get that done was to tell people to keep their mouths shut.  Here’s the thing.  Jesus was so wonderful, so amazing, so spectacular in His own humble way that people just couldn’t keep from telling everybody they could get to listen about Him.

So what’s happened to us today?  Instead of spreading the Good News, most of us seem to be afraid to speak.  Is Jesus the problem?  Is He less wonderful today?  Is He less amazing?  Or have we gotten so jaded that we’re not that easily impressed?  With phones in our pockets and televisions that fill up a whole wall are we just immune to being dazzled?  If I can see my granddaughter on my computer screen even though she’s hundreds of miles away, maybe a guy who can walk on water isn’t such a big deal.

No, Jesus is still a big deal.  He’s the biggest deal of all time.  He gave His life so that you and I could have our sins forgiven.  We’re the ones who have changed.  Is it any wonder that only three out of ten Catholics come to mass?  We, and I mean you and me, are failing in our calling to share the Good News of the Gospel with everyone we meet.  Here’s an idea.  I have a message from Jesus.  He said to tell you not to talk to anyone about Him.  Maybe it’ll work again.

Behold the Lamb of God

Lambchop with Kermit the Frog

You and I, as 21st century Americans, may not get the image John shares with us in this Sunday’s Gospel.  As Jesus walks by, John the Baptist says to his two disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  When we think of a lamb, we probably picture a cute, warm and fuzzy little beast.  I have a stuffed lamb that sits in my office.  My particular lamb is black, reminding me of the back sheep, the rebel, the trouble-maker, that we all tend to be sometimes.  You are probably familiar with Lambchop, ventriloquist Sherri Lewis’ puppet.  Maybe you picture the sheep that promote a certain brand of mattress.

Or, if you’re more into food than stuffed animals, you may think of lamb chops with mint jelly.  Lamb stew, or Irish stew may be in your mind.  If you’ve been to the Emerald Isle, you know that, outside of the cities, sheep and lambs are everywhere.  In America you’re most likely to see an actual lamb at a petting zoo.

But, to a first century Jew, the lamb was a symbol of sacrifice.  When John pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God, his message was that Jesus would become a sacrifice.  He would be killed.  Even so, the disciples chose to follow Him, knowing that they might also be called to sacrifice their own lives.  The question is, are we willing to follow the Lamb?  Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the kingdom?

Here’s a link to an excellent homily by Father Robert Barron on this Gospel.  It’s about fifteen minutes long and well worth your time.   Check it out.