Last year, L’Eglise de Notre Dame de l’Assumption, in the old fishing port of Arichat, Nova Scotia, celebrated its 175th anniversary. Its twin spires overlook the bay where John Paul Jones, to Americans a hero but to loyal Canadians a pirate and a traitor, once trained his guns, and sure enough, near the corner of the cemetery beside the church, there stands a big cannon pointed at the water. No pirate will be sailing into Arichat Bay. Americans and Canadians are fast friends. Yet that doesn’t mean that the church will see its two hundredth year. It’s not pirates we must fear, but the termites of resignation.
I’ve walked about that still beautiful church, built by ordinary French fishermen, once the first Catholic cathedral in Nova Scotia, and wondered why any priest with any understanding of human nature or the beauty of our faith would countenance its closing. I say “still beautiful,” because when came the Decades that Taste Forgot, some of the beauty was whitewashed or discarded or destroyed. But not all; the parishioners rose up and said, “No more!” The parishioners themselves installed the new heater some years ago when the pastor was away. They have done the painting and the repairing. They raised the money to restore the old pipe organ from Philadelphia, one of three such in existence. They have mortared the steps with their sweat. Their ancestors rest in the cemetery, except for the few who with the old pastors over are entombed within the church, beneath stones engraved and marked in gold.
If you linger in the church, if you pause to behold, you’ll see remarkable things, some of them beyond price. Among them are fourteen astonishingly dramatic and theologically astute paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Study the first. A weak-chinned Pilate, one sandaled foot thrust forward, washes his hands, while Jesus stands tall, one bare foot forward; and we recall the evening before, when Jesus showed His disciples what true authority was, as He took a towel and became the servant of His servants, washing their feet. Ponder the third. Jesus falls for the first time, and His hand rests upon a rock. The painter recalls Psalm 31, foretelling the sufferings of the Messiah:
Bow down your ear to me and deliver me speedily; be my strong rock, a house of defense to save me. For you are my rock and my fortress; therefore for your name’s sake lead me and guide me. Pull me out of the net they have secretly laid for me, for you are my strength. Into your hands I commend my spirit.
Then see the fourth. Jesus rests in that same position, hand upon the rock, as His mother Mary presses forward to sustain Him and to share in His sorrows.
Beauty everywhere; but it’s not that the people collect religious curios. They don’t. It’s just that their great-great-grandparents built that tall church and endowed it, and that’s why there’s a hand carved ivory rosary, and the extraordinary painting of the Assumption filling the whole wall behind the sanctuary, and the paintings on the ceiling—beginning with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, a barely visible blue figure visible in the sun behind the angel with the flaming sword: Mary, who will crush the serpent’s head.
It’s hard for homeless contemporary people to understand how they love their church. My good friends Odilon and Elaine Boudreau, and their family and their fellow parishioners, have worked hard to keep that church open—I mean on hands and knees, on ladders, in the belfry, on the roof, behind a lawn mower, with clippers, mops, scrapers, hammers, saws, trowels, shovels, and paintbrushes. It’s a large enough congregation. Attendance is not the problem.
Money is the problem. There are four churches on our island of four thousand people, one for each corner of the island, and each one treasured by its nearby families. The church in Arichat is by far the largest and the most beautiful. But the diocesan accountants say that it’s the most expensive to keep warm in the winter. That’s not true, but it’s also beside the point.
The point is the exact opposite of the happy-talk I’ve long heard, that a “building” does not a church make. No, it doesn’t. But we’re not disembodied spirits, either. It’s bad enough that we are a tumbleweed people, moving for the sake of motion. Worse, that half of our children will grow up in broken homes. Should we then uproot their spiritual home of the stalwarts who have remained, the church where they and their parents were baptized, where they received their First Communion, where they were confirmed, where they were married, where they saw their children baptized in turn, where they worshipped every Sunday and met their neighbors afterwards, and where their bodies will lie in the coffin before being returned to the dust?
It’s all well and good to say, “Wherever two or three believers are, there is the Church.” Yes, indeed. And wherever my wife and I and my children are, there’s our “home.” But does this mean we should not actually have a home? The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head, said Jesus. So we should then play the money-cop and tell the homeless Savior to move on? We should hustle people from this ecclesial way-station to that, as if love of place meant nothing, nor the ties that bind us to our forefathers?
Yes, our faith should be strong enough to withstand the shock when the wrecking ball batters the walls within which we once knelt at Benediction, and the bulldozers level the earth, and the place knows us no more. We should all be saints, too, but we’re not. There’s no reason why family ties should grow more tenuous after the homestead has been sold, and you can’t return to the yard where you once played as a child. No reason, except that we are human beings—why, the very smell of a coal bin brings me back to the four-room house where my family lived when I was a small boy, and sometimes got to shimmy through the window into the bin when my mother had locked herself out of the house.
We’re human beings, not calculators. The building that was once my parochial school and the parish hall still stands, but it belongs to the borough now. What is left of it? Certainly the statue of Thomas Aquinas at the entry had to be taken down. The top floor is no longer a basketball court and a stage. There’s something like a death when that happens. Make no mistake about this. Whenever human beings invest their love and their worship into a place, quite aside from its being sanctified by the Church, it becomes for them a holy place, and as such it demands reverence, and we should give our utmost to see it through the rough times. How can churchmen fail to understand this? Utilitarianism is self-devouring; it’s a disutility to believe in it; only the blessedly impractical ever leave their mark upon this world. Never should the shutting of any church, no matter how small, be viewed as anything other than a failure or a death. We should move heaven and earth to prevent it.
Which brings me to a second point. I’ve heard all my life that in the “new” Church the layman will play a more prominent role than before. I don’t believe it, because I’m too keenly aware of how prominent the layman was in a church like that of my boyhood. I know about the long-lived and vibrant chapter of the Knights of Columbus, and the Altar and Rosary Society, and the Holy Name Society, and the Knights of Father Mathew. I know that Irish miners built that impressive church with their own hands. I know they once sweated and groaned in the coal mines for two weeks to defray the last expenses for the building, handing over their entire salaries to the parish, every man and boy of them; and the mine owners agreed to it even though there were no coal orders to fill. I know they emptied their wallets to hire a painter from Italy to fill the church, walls and ceiling, with beauty, and when the church suffered a fire twenty years later, they did the same to bring over the water the painter’s protégé.
If laymen are to be more prominent in the Church, let them be more prominent on the church—on the building and on the grounds, doing all they can do with their muscles and ingenuity and ordinary tools. That means the boys and the young men, too. Why shouldn’t their first lessons in stonework or carpentry or wiring be learned while watching and assisting their elders? The boys don’t want to sing alongside sopranos in the choir loft. Fine—let them do what would give them a sense of accomplishment and pride in their growing strength. Let them work alongside their fathers and uncles on the choir loft.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Lilies of the Field. A group of nuns, refugees from Germany, have come to the arid southwest to build a convent, a chapel, and a school. They hire a black journeyman, Homer Schmidt (Sidney Poitier) to build the chapel, even though they are flat broke. The first time we see the congregation, they’re gathered outside of a dumpy roadside diner, and the priest is about to celebrate Mass from the back of his trailer. He invites Schmidt in for a drink after Mass. He’s discouraged and cynical. He thought he’d do well in the Church, but here he is in the middle of nowhere. He advises Schmidt to move on.
But Schmidt does build that chapel. The nuns raise a dollar or two; some materials are donated by the local contractor; the Spanish and Indian congregation helps; Schmidt ends up working for nothing but the feeling of accomplishment, mingled with a feeling of having done something for God, because for all his waywardness he does believe. And the priest enters that chapel which he did not lift a hand to build, and he is mortified—crushed by the goodness of God and his own ingratitude and unworthiness. He kneels and prays.
A model for the Church, and for churches. I never saw a painting of a saint presenting a wrecking ball to the Lord. Build, then keep.