South Park – North Park – Golden Hill

Friday, November 17, 2017

Former churches find a new way to speak

Converted into homes, former churches find a new way to speak
What to do with sparsely populated church buildings is a great challenge to parishes and dioceses, and there are no easy answers.

Walk down a city street in New York City or take a short drive through Chicago and you are likely to see numerous churches. Take a closer look at one of these buildings, however, and you might be startled to realize you are actually looking at an apartment building or condominium.

Not that long ago I was walking through my parish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and I stumbled across a church I hadn't seen before. As I looked closer I saw that the church had been converted into luxury apartments. As a person of faith, how does one feel looking at such a transformed space? A myriad thoughts and emotions surfaced in me. 

Initially, it was simply a sense of loss. Here was a house of worship, a place where the Christian community had gathered to offer praise and thanks to God. Here was a place that had housed powerful moments in the life of a community, from baptisms to funerals. Here was the vestige of Christian values and witness turned into an apartment building.

Despite the validity of those thoughts and emotions, it's important not to romanticize the past, give way to despair, or extrapolate too much from the experience. It is perhaps commonplace for Catholics in the Midwest and Northeast to gaze around their congregations on Sundays and observe a diminishment in attendance. Often this can lead to a lament about the decline of faith, criticism of secular values, or a challenge to parish pastoral staffs to "do more to attract youth and young families." 

Yet the picture of how the church in the United States got to this place is much more complex, and the outlook for Catholicism in our country today is much more hopeful.

Historically, the Catholic population in the United States was largely centered in urban areas in the Northeast and the Midwest. It was largely a diverse immigrant population from throughout Europe. For example, in a nine-block radius in that same South Side Chicago neighborhood there were three Catholic parishes that served different cultural groups: Polish, Irish, and Italian. This, of course, as many longtime Catholics remember, was commonplace. Our big city landscapes are peppered by numerous beautiful church buildings built with great dedication, pride, and artistic merit by the congregations who worshiped in those magnificent buildings for years.

However, demographics shift through time. Today, due to a smaller Catholic population in the neighborhood, those three Catholic churches in Chicago have merged into one parish. While there are still strong remnants of the founding Polish, Irish, and Italian communities, the vast majority of the current Catholic congregants are Latino/a and their primary language is Spanish. More than this, the archdiocese, instead of closing these buildings in favor of using just one church building, decided to keep each of the former church buildings open for Sunday liturgies.

While the three parishes merged into one, the worship spaces remained active. However, this has led to great challenges. Each parish has a church, rectory, school building, and convent. All together the new parish entity has 13 old buildings to maintain.

This story is not uncommon. Similarly common are the frustrations of parishioners in these situations who feel that, "all the church cares about is money," and their primary mission is to maintain these old buildings. It is certainly a great danger to the faith when Catholics who are called by Pope Francis to be "missionary disciples" find themselves instead almost completely occupied with the task of maintaining church buildings, no matter how inspiring the architecture. What to do with sparsely populated church buildings in these changing times is a great challenge to parishes and dioceses, and there are no easy answers.

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