a reluctant atheist

I'm an atheist who wishes she wasn't. Life would be so much easier!

Razing the Church

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Church DemolitionA Catholic Church was recently torn down in my community, and the uproar has been amazing. It was a lovely building of various shades of sandstone and limestone. At one time, before the soot of decades of steel mills and factories dulled the color, it was a warm, golden color. More recently it had become a darker version of its original glory, but was still a beautiful little church with a rose window and some stunning stained glass. But it had sat empty for years. The Catholic diocese had closed it a decade ago because there weren’t enough people attending and they couldn’t afford the upkeep. The remaining members began attending another church just a few miles away, where they joined an active congregation and got on with their religious lives.

Which is why I’m so astounded by the outcry over tearing down a building that was standing empty for years. At one point, it was sold to someone who was going to convert it to office space. That fell through. Then, someone invested a lot of money into turning it into a restaurant. That fell through as well. Finally, a large chain store bought the property and surrounding homes so that they could raze the whole thing and build a big box store. Not that I’m a fan of those big box stores, but the property had been vandalized numerous times and the weeds were overgrown and the place looked terrible.

As soon as the announcement was made that they church was going to be torn down, residents of my town were up in arms. “Why?!” the cried. “Who will save our historic, beautiful church?”  They had several arguments, which I’ll list below with my own thoughts on this issue. I am just baffled by the whole situation.

The church is historically significant.

No, it isn’t. I’ve been to the local historical society. I’ve combed the archives of the local libraries. I’ve done Internet searches. The church is not historically significant. Just because it is old and a church doesn’t mean it is historically important. Hundreds of churches are consolidated, closed or moved every year. And let’s remember that the “church” is not supposed to be the building – it’s supposed to be the people. And they’ve moved on.

I was baptized there/My children were baptized there/I was married there, etc.

This goes back to the concept of “historically significant.”  Are you the President? A famous preacher? A history maker on a national or international scale?  No? Then it doesn’t matter that you were baptized or married there to anyone except you and your family. Tearing down the church shouldn’t make your sacraments any less valuable to you. This kind of reaction also smacks of self-centeredness – the building should stand forever even though it is empty and rotting where it stands simply because you feel nostalgic about it.

Someone needs to save it for the community.

When the church closed, everyone cried that someone should save it. Two different groups tried to by repurposing the building for offices and/or a restaurant. But each time, they got push-back from the community. The didn’t like the interior being divided up, they didn’t want alcohol to be served by the restaurant, and the list went on. So if the protestors don’t like the solutions offered, they should have either stepped in with their own money or been a little less critical of others. Many people have rejected every proposal for repurposing this building. I suspect they would protest ANY idea put forth for the building unless it was to simply keep letting it be a monument to their personal past that would have continued to crumble until it fell down on its own.

It’s important to our community.

This is the easiest thing in the world to refute. The church is the body of the congregation (at least in the church I was raised in), not the building. While I agree it is sad that a lovely old building couldn’t be saved, I feel that way about any older, beautiful piece of architecture, whether it is an older home, a community center or an apartment building. But if no one can repurpose them, it’s important to the community to provide new services and opportunities, not let a pile of stone and glass sit abandoned and neglected.

Frankly, if this church had been important enough while all of these people were growing up and then raising their own families, they would have been filling the pews every Sunday, not just for special occasions. The church would still be a thriving religious community and the diocese would not have closed it. The fact is, many people who are in an uproar over this will admit when asked that they hadn’t attended services there on a regular basis for years before it closed. Their religious objections to taking down the church were based largely on nostalgia, not religious conviction.

If your church is truly important to you, be there. Otherwise, please don’t make your community carry the burden of guilt because that particular building is one you used to visit for major holidays and the occasional wedding. That is a lip service religion at best, or the force of generations of habit. But it’s not enough to keep a dead, empty church standing.




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