Being someone who considers himself an armchair architect – or at least, an armchair architectural critic – I would never seek to put good architects out of work. The need for new church buildings, in particular, is something that continues to draw interest, though it is only rarely that such construction is of the “meant to last for centuries” variety. However, an intriguing article I read recently by my friend the American Papist brought to my attention a very interesting idea for new and expanding parish churches, and one which, in the proper context, it seems to me ought to be more widely considered.
The idea of converting an old church, left for various reasons by an earlier congregation, into a home for a new congregation is nothing new, of course. My own hometown parish took over a 19th century building that was originally built for a Protestant congregation, when that structure became too small. Some decades later the parish moved into a larger, newly-built structure about a mile away, and the old church was purchased by an expanding Coptic parish.
We are also no doubt familiar with the fate of some beautiful old churches and convents, which are converted into condominiums, office buildings, or retail outlets. This is always painful to see, no matter how sensitive the conversion. In Central London in the late 1990’s I recall visiting the Limelight Nightclub on Cambridge Circus, housed in a rather imposing old Presbyterian church. Seeing the various levels of debauchery on show in what was originally the sanctuary area, I remember being very uncomfortable about it and ultimately deciding not to return – even though the structure had been deconsecrated. (Subsequently the place became a sports bar, if memory serves.)
The parish of Mary Our Queen in Norcross, Georgia, is expanding rapidly. That in and of itself is a remarkable statement, particularly in the deep South which, historically, has never been hugely sympathetic to Catholicism. This vibrant and growing parish wanted to build a traditional, beautiful church, and had already come up with plans to do so when it learned of the existence of a closed parish church in Buffalo, New York, built in the traditional Roman basilica style in 1911, that almost exactly matched the style of what they intended to build. The end result is that the New York church is going to be physically moved to Georgia.
At this point one cannot avoid the point that it is unfortunate that such a beautiful parish church should have to close, due to changing demographics. It would also be a valid point to raise that if Catholics fled to the suburbs, then the church could have been moved with them, rather than building some sort of lumpy modern monstrosity that cost more to build than what it would have cost to move the old building, and which will decay into a pile of rusted steel and concrete block in 20 years and have to be replaced. Having raised that point, however, let us move on to say: what a brilliant idea this is.
The history of Catholicism in America is one in which the history of immigration plays the most crucial role. The building of beautiful, substantial churches by local parishes was often a creation of a bulwark against a rampant anti-Catholicism in public and private life. It is so often the case that, when reading about the history of a lovely old parish church, we learn that it was paid for by contributions from immigrants, who thought it important to create a glorious house of worship even if it meant sacrificing some of their own personal wants.
How sad it is when we see these old churches, built by Slovaks and Poles, Italians and Irish and Germans, being mothballed, torn down, or turned to other purposes, sometimes before they are even a century old. How often we see photos in the narthex or hall, when visiting a parish built after the Council, of what the old church used to look like, as we try desperately to figure out where the tabernacle is, or what the poorly-rendered symbols are in the poorly-executed stained glass (or why there is only an electric keyboard accompanied by guitars and tambourines, and no pipe organ at mass.) And yet how often, one wonders, might it be possible for a parish seeking to expand to save a beautiful old church in the process, by eschewing tempered glass tissue box designs in favor of saving part of the history of the Catholic Church?
While physically moving an old church to a new location may not always be financially or logistically practical, it would be a very great thing indeed of the example of this parish in Norcross was taken to heart by more parishes and dioceses in this country. Those interested in following, or indeed donating to this wonderful cause, can visit the website www.movedbygrace.com and track the progress of the project. I for one wish them great success in their efforts, and hope you, dear reader, will do the same.