Horror Stories Abound in Shuttered Sanctuaries

This month in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Film Festival included a screening of the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist at a venue that used to be a Catholic church. The venue in question, Holy Rosary in South Belfast, has been empty and closed since 1980, when the parish outgrew it and moved to the larger chapel of the convent next door. The old church building, now in private ownership, is scheduled to be developed into an Italian restaurant in the near future. A local priest is unhappy about the horror film screening, finding it exploitative, even though he has no problem with the church eventually becoming an eatery.

Here’s what’s remarkable about this particular use, at a time when closed churches—most often, ones that are older and beautiful in a traditional way—so easily face demolition or secular reuse. If anything, The Exorcist, and the reaction some Catholics have to its underlying message, symbolizes one reason why we’re seeing more church closures. Many Catholics have exorcised the idea of the devil as a reality, and with it the notion of personal sin, from their hearts and minds.

Just a few months ago, Fr. Arturo Sosa, superior general of the Society of Jesus, caught hell in some circles for referring to the devil as a symbol. “We have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil,” Fr. Sosa said in an interview with a Madrid newspaper. “Social conditioning can also represent this figure, since there are people who act [in an evil way] because they are in an environment where it is difficult to act to the contrary.” A spokesman later clarified Fr. Sosa believes what the Church teaches, but would not go into further detail and confirm what he believed Church teaching on the devil exactly might be.

C.S. Lewis once noted that “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” There have been times when the latter has been the case; now it seems the pendulum has swung the other way and we are too quick to remove the idea of the devil as a distinct person, a fallen angel, from our minds.

Belfast’s Holy Rosary may seem like an anomaly to the usual church closure story, because the parish church had moved to a larger location. This new location, however, was the chapel of a convent on the property that experienced the typical death of vocations in the 1970s, according to the parish website. Parish consolidations—and empty convent cloisters—are a recurring event in much of the West.

The Exorcist is based on a 1971 novel of the same title by William Peter Blatty, a devout Catholic who passed away this past January at the age of 89. The movie received ten Academy Award nominations in 1974, including for best picture, and Blatty won one for best adapted screenplay.

In a 2015 interview, the author commented on why he wrote the book, a fictionalized account of a real exorcism: “It’s an argument for God. I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.”

Sadly, Blatty’s final years were spent battling his beloved Georgetown University for its lack of catholicity when it honored Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2012. He created the Father King Society, led a petition drive, filed a canon law suit and asked Cardinal Donald Wuerl to forbid Georgetown from continuing to call itself Catholic.

The showing of The Exorcist in a former church leads one to wonder what should be the right use of former churches, especially those of a historic nature. When church property is usually sold, it is often with deed restrictions that limit the use, restrictions that can be hard to enforce down the line.

For example, a common and obvious one for Catholic churches is to not allow the former church to be used by a group calling itself Catholic that is not in good standing with the Church. Some go even further, as in Boston, and not allow the building to be used as a house of worship at all, without specific approval from the local ordinary.

Canon law itself (Canon 1222) offers some guidance also: “Where other grave reasons suggest that a particular church should no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan Bishop may allow it to be used for a secular but not unbecoming purpose. Before doing so, he must consult the council of priests; he must also have the consent of those who could lawfully claim rights over that church, and be sure that the good of souls would not be harmed by the transfer.”

Several years ago, here in St. Louis, there was a minor kerfuffle when one closed church, St. Boniface in the Carondelet neighborhood, was converted to a theater, with one of the first performances listed as the musical revue Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll. The archdiocese protested, and then backed off after reviewing the play’s content.

On a business trip a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the historic Loretto Chapel, a popular attraction in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is home to a legendary “miraculous” spiral staircase that, so the story goes, was built in the late nineteenth century by a mysterious figure some considered to be an apparition of St. Joseph himself.

After Vatican II, in a story that is all-too familiar and not unlike what occurred in Belfast, the decimation of the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe led to the closure of their historic school and the sale of the famous chapel, which was deconsecrated and became privately owned in 1971.

One can still visit the Loretto Chapel, for a small price, and admire the religious artwork that was left behind, but one also can get a sense of the incorrect use of closed churches and chapels cited above, perhaps one of the worst possible uses. Until very recently, it had been used by a breakaway group calling itself Catholic, the “Church of Antioch.”

Like many historic churches, it also profits from its popularity as a wedding venue—except in this case it includes services for same-sex couples, as when two women were married there in 2014, even posing, as all paying couples do, on the spiral staircase regular tourists are not allowed to set foot on.

The closure and consolidation of churches is not only a cause for alarm, but also a call to arms. Are Catholics doing enough to evangelize in these places—especially impoverished urban neighborhoods? Are we doing all we can to preserve these magnificent monuments of faith for a future when they might be needed again? In some cities, like Buffalo and St. Louis, the “Mass Mob” movement encourages Catholics living in a metro area to come together for Sunday Mass at a specific church facing financial difficulties and help support it via the collection basket.

A 2014 article in the National Catholic Register points out an extra benefit: “While the Mass Mobs are drawing attention to the churches, the churches draw attention to the neighborhoods: they’re not pretty. They have many, many people in need of mass evangelization, who would benefit from knowing they have a home in these churches.”

The devil has had great success in drawing people away from our churches. Ironically, an exploitative horror movie about him, screening in a closed church, may perhaps have a positive effect on one or two lost souls sitting there in the dark. Stranger things have been known to happen.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Holy Rosary church in Belfast. (Photo credit: Ulster Architectual Heritage Society via Flickr)

K. E. Colombini

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K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in the National Catholic Register and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and two grandchildren.

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