Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Our Lady of Lourdes

My old neighborhood church, Our Lady of Lourdes, is going to be torn down.

It has sat vacant for several years now since it merged with the other neighborhood parish, Sacred Heart, located just about five houses and one convenience store down the street. Since then, the boiler has let go, the roof shingles are lifting and black mold blots the ceiling and walls.

It's just a building, just four walls. But it's a building that was built by the sacrifices of hard-working immigrants with every item - whether it be the altar, tabernacles, statues or pews - donated in memory of a devoted parishioner or former pastor.

And it's a building steeped in memories with prayers still ringing in the rafters and the smell of incense and candle wax still thick as fog in the air. It is where we processed up the aisle in our white suits, our hands clasped stiffly in reverence to receive our first holy communion. It is where Sr. Donald Marie would round us up every Wednesday after school to practise "Up,Up With People" and "Whatsoever You Do" for the youth choir. And it is where we slinked in the pews as teenagers hoping our classmates didn't notice us in the silk shirts our mothers made us wear.

It's just a building, but places are important to Christians. We still believe in holy ground. Just this Sunday we celebrated the dedication of a church in Rome which few of us had ever heard of before. We maintain with dignity and reverence the places in the Holy Land which mark significant events in Jesus' life. We honor the graves of the saints. Just so the places where we pray themselves become sacred.

The tearing down of this sacred place is a sad time for us who have worshiped there and heard the gospel proclaimed there. Part of the pain, I suspect, is the feeling that the suppression and merging of churches serves as a metaphor for the state of the big "C" Church in our area. With fewer vocations and funerals outpacing baptisms, we feel that we are a Church in decline, especially when evangelical communities seem to be appearing in every abandoned storefront in town.

But there is also opportunity. These old parish boundaries were drawn along ethnic lines, and the neighborhoods that surrounded them were immigrant enclaves. When the factory whistle blew, the parish was where worshipers could feel at home again, where their feasts continued to be celebrated and their language was still spoken. Evangelization required no more effort than ringing the church bells fifteen minutes before Mass started. As we move away from that model, parishes can no longer just be service stations where people go to meet their obligations or slake their nostalgia. Parishes now need to be places where liturgies are celebrated with both reverence and gusto and where the church bells are replaced with the knuckles of parishioners willing to go out and knock on doors.

As with any loss, feelings of sadness and anger accompany the decision to tear Our Lady of Lourdes down. But we have seen the neighborhood changing for years, and we are now putting ourselves in a position to serve the people's needs better. It is really no more than that. We are being asked to move on for the sake of something greater. We are being asked to be involved in a new, bold work of the Spirit.

It's likely that the next time I drive by First Street in Taunton, they'll be a hole in the ground where I once worshiped. But I'll still see Our Lady of Lourdes Church there. I'll see the steep red brick stairs leading up to the front doors. I'll see the bulletins and missalettes stacked on the radiator. I'll see the wooden cross hanging from almost invisible cables over the altar. I'll remember how my grandmother used to bless herself every time we drove by, and I'll want to bless myself.

It will always be holy ground.

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