Against the Senseless Destruction of Churches

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.

Arichat Church 1Money 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.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • RRZ

    A roadblock has been put in the way of laboring to build, and even maintain, our churches. Building codes and licensing requirements make it difficult if not impossible to have other than non-professional builders, plumbers and electricians erect our structures. In many cases the local professionals work for the church at discounts, and this is praiseworthy, but the connection of people and place is diminished. Giving one’s money and giving one’s time and energy are laudable but very different things.

  • roxwyfe

    It would be a shame in a world filled with ugliness and pettiness that a beautiful reminder of faith and love should be destroyed. I hope you are able to keep the church open and in use by those who love it.

  • poetcomic1

    Philip Rieff said; “If a past has no authority, then it is dead, however expensive its artifacts.” All those who built so beautifully did so under a sublimely constituted authority that is but a distant memory.

  • hombre111

    Wonderful, Dr. Esolen.

  • Let’s Be Practical

    And is there a way we can send a dollar or two…?
    Or maybe a plan to get the church declared a landmark – especially if it’s threatened with destruction?

    • Ben

      Indeed. Please let us know if there’s a fund. Opus Dei saved Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago – hopefully, we can find a way to do the same!

    • Thanks for the article

      The Church has been designated a historic site. You may send donations to:
      Our Lady of Assumption
      P.O. Box 60
      Arichat, Nova Scotia
      B0E 1A0

      • Questions?

        Since it is now a historical site, does that now mean the government of Nova Scotia (and by extension, Canada) own and control it?

  • Cricket17

    Wonderful article, & thanks for bringing the plight of this church to our attention. I should point out, though, it’s not always parishioner apathy that causes beautiful old churches to be “wreckovated.” I belonged to a historic German parish in the Downtown area of a large midwestern college town. The church & its out-buildings (rectory, old convent, school) were all declared both city & national historic landmarks. Though small by today’s mega-church standards, the church was well-attended, with a vibrant mix of Hispanics, students, city dwellers & a growing Traditional Latin Mass community. Our bishop wants to change the “demographic,” however, & we sense he plans to break up the congregation & shutter the beautiful old church. Parishioners who have banded together to attempt to repair/restore parish buildings have been prevented from doing so by the resident pastor. Long-time social & devotional activities were ordered to cease, along with any kind of fundraising efforts. My point is, historic preservation laws can go just so far to save congregations that are on the local bishop’s “hit list.” Many clergymen need to examine their consciences to determine whether they, themselves, played a role in the loss of their historic patrimony, & to make a firm purpose of amendment to work with their congregations to put a stop to any further destruction. Once a piece of our collective architectural history is gone, it can never be replaced. And we are all the poorer for it.

  • Makalu

    Dear Anthony,
    You silly man; why are you so surprised? Do you not see the banner of Modernism and Progressiveism before you? Do you not see their rich promises of love and spiritual growth for all? After all that is why we have to have “The New Evangelization”. It is to repair the massive loss of faith which occured after the 60’s and 70’s. Apparently 1900+ years of Christianity had it wrong and yet the Protesants apparently got it right by stripping their churches and religious rites to bare minimums.
    Something changed in the 60’s and 70’s. What was that? Do our clergy have the courage to admit that there is something awry in their program of the “New” faith they have shoved upon us? Pope benedict VI has said that the old order was never abrogated. Maybe we should see how things were before when the Church and vocations were booming, but of course that is not Progressive!

    • makalu

      Sorry for the typos; “Progressivism” and Benedict XVI

      • grzybowskib

        I don’t think he is surprised. I think he is upset. 🙁

  • John O’Neill

    So much ugliness both in the buildings and people of the brave new world in which we live. It makes one so sad to see the destruction of our beautiful Catholic culture and to have to look at the sheer filth and ugliness of the cities of man. Immanetize the eschaton.

  • Leonard

    WOW!!!! I could not have said it better myself. Lets pray that Our Lady of Fatima will intervene and save these churches..

  • Michael Newhouse

    Part of the problem is the professionalization of the world. You can almost never have parishioners doing wiring and painting and carpentry on the parish buildings…for skills sake if not for liability reasons. The world is beginning to price us out of the “Our Town” handiness you (rightly) yearn for. It also makes everything very expensive. And we have utilities and insurance and benefits and professional staffs that our grandparents’ parishes didn’t have.
    Second, Catholics need to give more. We give at HALF the rate of Protestants. That’s shameful.

    • susanna

      More? I can’t. 30 days/ month there are donation request(s) in my mailbox, (missions, relief, religious orders, seminaries, my support for EWTN); 4 days/month Sun collection, sometimes x 2, not to mention the Bishop’s share, retired religious support. I don’t think Prots have these. Oh, and candles, $3!!!

      • Michael Newhouse

        On average, Catholics give 1.1% of their income to the Church. (That’s averaged out over ALL people who identify as Catholics, half of which never go to church at all and never give a penny).
        Protestants give 2.2%.
        Look at your monthly income. As long as you’re giving at least 5% to your parish/diocese…you’re good. So if you make $2000 per month total…give $100 to your parish.

  • Tom Piatak

    An excellent piece.

  • windjammer

    Great article as usual. But most Catholics don’t believe, let alone know about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The liturgy is about Christ and Glorifying God. Beauty, music and reverence are meant to convey that. Thus the reason for the beautiful Churches, No belief? Churches become an expensive burden rather than a temple of worship.

    Cardinal Burke hits it dead on. See his interview at Sacra Liturgia Conference below:

  • smokes

    What a beautiful church and a lovely article. Yet, when Catholics stop having children the writing is on the wall. It’s sad.

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  • Art Deco

    I am glad attendance is not a problem there. Where I have been, attendance often is a problem. It creates a horrible dilemma when the building is handsome (as some inner city churches often are). When it is suburban junk architecture (or when it was ruined some decades ago), not so much.

  • Poor Hispanic Native Indian

    Well, maybe if we all paid better salaries to the mainstream Catholic parishioner, lower income Hispanics, they would be happy to give more to the church… We get what we pray for…

  • Causus Omnium Danorum

    So, Tony, here we are at a turning point, and by ‘here’ I mean here in your current hometown and mine, Providence…we have many beautiful Churches, and many of them are in impoverished parts of town with dwindling congregations. A few churches have been closed but so far we have escaped the wholesale closures that occurred in Woonsocket and Central Falls/Pawtucket. So what can we do to preserve our diocese’s tremendous architectural heritage? If things continue as they are, it seems likely that within 20 years there will be many more church closures–so how can we work to prevent them? I welcome your ideas!

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  • Valentin

    It is crushing to here about such holy and beautiful places treated like abandoned factories simply because someone is short on money, by the way since when did hard work, a life of poverty, and self-sacrifice get treated as though they were sins?

  • Terry Mattinson

    You have three other churches what is more important a building or PEOPLE? People are starving, living in poverty, being homeless and waken up it is 2013, Pope Francis talks about the poor? I can say no more

    • Bob

      There’s no need to choose. For many centuries, the Catholic Church built with timeless beauty while simultaneously feeding the poor whom the secular authorities would have left to starve. We can do what they did.

  • MtMy

    I’d be interested in knowing if the Catholic birthrate in Arichat is the same as it was 50 or 75 or 100 years ago. Are people having large enough families to insure that while some leave for ‘greener pastures,’ enough stay to carry on the life of the community and the parishes?

    As society becomes more and more mobile, fewer and fewer people live their whole lives in the same place, especially in the US.

    Upward mobility and outward mobility – to the suburbs – the loss of manufacturing jobs in cities and elsewhere have changed the structure of the United States since those beautiful churches were first built. Churches that were built in once Polish or German or Italian, etc., neighborhoods of large, working-class families whose social life revolved around the parish now have congregations of other ethnic groups, multiple ethnic groups or a fluctuating, constantly changing population as people move into the city for a short time and then move on.

    Do we find church closures like this happening in places with a large, vibrant pro-life Catholic presence, like Steubenville, Ohio?

    Where I live in Central Europe, people move from small towns and villages to the big cities, but for the most part, they move only once or stay where they were born and brought up. So they are baptized and have first communion and confirmation all in the same parish church – often the same church where their parents and grandparents (and in some cases, going back many generations) were born, lived and died.

    But then it’s a Catholic country, which means that no matter where you live, your neighborhood is Catholic, and the national holidays are the same as the Church holy days. I suppose that in US cities, when neighborhoods were ethnic/religious enclaves, it was much ‘easier’ and more natural for life to revolve around the parish and church festivals. Now life in the US seems to revolve around the TV schedule and the mall and the kids’ various lessons and practices.

    The whole social structure has changed since those parish churches were built, and as sad as it is to see beauty effaced, the issue is not simple or straightforward. It’s hard to know how to address it, apart from Catholics having a LOT more children, as a start. The more Catholics there are – especially faithful, church-going Catholics – the more people will be attracted to neighborhoods near Catholic churches. And maybe we’ll see Catholic communities around Catholic churches again. But with it being so hard for people to afford to raise a large family (at all) especially in cities, it’s hard to know how to address the issue of city churches closing. And with people moving out of the rural areas and small towns, how do we support the churches in smaller areas? I can only think of one solution: more children = more of a demand for everything, including churches.