Thursday, April 13, 2006

I'm no Holy McChurchkin, but this got to me

They just razed the church of my childhood. The demolition had been in the works for several years, but even when the interior was being disassembled and shipped to points across this hemisphere (including my parents’ kitchen, where one of the wooden pews now sits), I didn’t think the bulldozers would really show up to barrel the 150 year-old bricks into heaps of dusty rubble. But it finally happened.

The recently consolidated parish has built a new church elsewhere, and I’ve even been there once with my family. I didn’t burst into flames when I walked in, but the priest tearfully announced he was leaving the priesthood at the end of that service, which I took as a sign that because bad things seem to happen when I go to church, maybe I should stay home instead.

The new church, while attractive in a modern sense, is just too canned for me. With a cutting-edge stereo system, sleek, vaulted ceilings and that "new McMansion" smell, it could have been right at home in any subdivision in America. And that is exactly why I miss the old church.

Built by German immigrants before the Civil War, the old church was a model of gothic kitsch, with its high ceilings painted with stars and gold crosses, gigantic swag lighting, tall stained glass windows, intricately hand-carved altar with a backlit diorama of Little Boy Jesus leading a sheep (done in a style reminiscent of the old Campbell’s Soup kids), 20 foot tall statues of beatific Mary and kind-eyed Joseph, and hand-carved three-dimensional Stations of the Cross flanking the pews and leading up to the focal point of it all above the altar:

Ultra-realistic Crucified Emaciated Jesus, with bloody gashes and nails in his hands and feet and clearly visible ribs and a sunken stomach with a tiny outtie belly button and nipples and wearing nothing but a crown of thorns, a pained expression, and a towel. This was no sanitized, easy-on-the-eyes Jesus. This was giant, bloody, beaten, half-naked, dying on a cross Jesus. With nipples.

I didn’t need to watch The Passion of the Christ because I’d seen it every Sunday at church.

But Ultra-realistic Jesus is gone now. As is the creepy doll someone dressed as Boy Jesus in a gold crown and robes and then clapped under a protective glass dome near the sacristy. Also gone is the nubby blue carpet and faint smell of incense. The stiff padded kneelers and holy water wells. I’ll never again watch dust motes float through blue sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows while my neighbors chant “The Apostle’s Creed.” I’ll never again daydream through another sermon in that church, counting the minutes until I could get home to zone out in front of The Jetsons with a bowl of Lucky Charms.

Never again will I hear my agnostic father try to make us laugh during mass with a stage-whispered, “Hey, how come I can’t go up and get any crackers?” before communion and, “I want to wear a funny hat, too!” should the bishop happen to be present. My father, though not remotely religious, was probably one of the angriest people about the church’s demise. “In Europe,” he said, “they respect history. Here, we just tear it down and replace it with a strip mall. Everything for a price. Nothing is sacred.”

This was the church of my first communion, my first confession, and my first marriage (that’s a whole ‘nother post). This was the church in which I sang off-key in a youth choir and experienced a thousand cases of church giggles, including the time my 7th grade classmates and I overheard Joe Loehr loudly confessing to the priest the same laundry list of sins we were waiting our turns to confess: fighting with brothers and sisters, lying, disobeying our parents, failing to do our chores. (Like anyone would ever fess up to onanism or unpure thoughts about the hot new English teacher.)

Hundreds of people were baptized and married in this church and dozens were later buried next to it. I can still see the tearful and bewildered expressions on the older parishioners’ faces after the final mass at St. Michael’s last fall. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to get used to the new church,” some of them said. “This is just a building, we have to remember. It's just a place. This is progress.” But they sounded as if they weren’t convincing even themselves of the new reality. Then the bells pealed one last time and fell silent.

I may be a sometimes-godless heathen, but I’m sentimental about that place. Anyway, happy Easter or Passover, whatever your flavor. I’ll be back with a lighter post on Monday.

31 comments:

  1. It's a shame when gorgeous, meaningful structures are brought down. Especially when more sort of commercial ones are quickly raised in their place.
    People sometimes think that just because it's not Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright, that it must not be worth preserving. :(
    *sigh*

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  2. Change isn't always good. People nowadays seem to think it is. But those are usually the ones who don't notice the creepy Jesus doll or the dust floating in the light. :)

    BTW: What a stunning picture.

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  3. Oh, how sad! It looks really pretty and full of character in the photo, which is fantastic.

    :.(

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  4. Your pop is right - anything for a price over here.

    speakign of things that gave church giggles - during one Ash wednesday, my friendmary, who is old enough to me my mom, turned to me and said, "Ya know, I liek doing the Signs of the Cross backwards; Jesus gets better."

    I swear I almost wet myself.

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  5. That is so sad, and so close to Easter :(

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  6. I hate to see historic structures demolished. Something is lost than can never be replaced. Old buildings are one of the few true time machines I know of.

    As sad as it is, that's a powerful picture.

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  7. That's a real shame. I grew up in WI, and though I was not raised Catholic, I know exactly the kind of church you describe. There is something moving about an historic old church, even for a skeptic like me. It's a shame it was torn down.

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  8. See, the whole "not having to look at naked dying bloody people" thing is one reason I'm glad I'm Jewish.

    But I totally understand what you're saying, there is an unreproduceable (is that a word?) feeling from being in your childhood place of worship. Or parents worship. Or place they dragged you to look good, or whatever.

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  9. I adore that picture. I want it to be a book cover or something significant like that. Was it condemmed or something? What possible reason could they have for tearing down something so lovely?

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  10. (Mignon: to save money on upkeep, supposedly. Also, I'm told the bricks were sold.)

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  11. I'm with your dad. There's a lot to be said for something that has stood the test of time, has watched time and people change, that has withstood times of war and times of peace.

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  12. I'm not even a fan of churches and that makes me sad. Call me sentimental... Damn kids, they do that to you!

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  13. It's true. I felt that way when they tore down the old funky "Mother Cabrini" church that my family used to attend. And it was an UGLY cinderblock building - but it definately had one of those agonized Jesus. Like he was DARING you to be bored, bitches.

    Then the godless heathen in me came out and took over. Wait, do I smell Jesus?

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  14. That is sad. So much history...sad to see it go so suddenly and quickly.

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  15. aimee1:07 AM

    Your dad rules. That's too bad about the church. My stepdad found one in Atlanta that performs the service in German, so he is doing that Sunday. I thnk that's better than any McChurch. :(

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  16. I'm surprised in this day and age of preserving the past they did that. Was the building deemed unsafe or something?

    That's sad though. All those memories. Oh well, at least you will always have the memories.

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  17. I think it's all the prayers that get said and soak into the walls and mix with the incense and whispered confessions that make the place so darned meaningful. A new building doesn't have the gravitas or history to really seem like a church.

    At least to me. Sorry about yours.

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  18. Wow. I miss the church and I've never even been there.

    :(

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  19. Very nice tribute Jess. You so eloquently captured the very things I always think about from when I went to church as a kid.

    Hey, maybe you should think about becoming a writer or something!

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  20. Fantastic tribute. THis should be in the local paper. And your dad sounds amazing.

    I totally understand - while I hated the synagogue we went to as kids (they kicked us out basically), when I went back there last year for a friend's baby naming, I found myself a bit sentimental for how it used to be. The improvements were nice, too, but it's almost as if I were worried that having seen the newness, I'd lose the oldness in my memory.

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  21. I think it's a travesty. I'm not a churchgoers either, but I've always appreciated the architecture of U.S. churchs built before the turn of the century. Lots of those in Minnesota. Lots of them built from honey-colored limestone. Beautiful.

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  22. Aw, Jess...what a remarkably touching post.

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  23. The church I grew up attending had no real character or history to it. My husband pastors a church that's about 60 years old. It's not particularly pretty--there's no stained glass or fancy architecture--but the members are extremely attached to it because its such a big part of their individual histories. On the one hand, this can be frustrasting. (God forbid anything be changed or moved!) But to me, it's so interesting to think about the role the building has played in their lives.

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  24. I'm sorry to hear that it's going, or gone. Lots of memories for you and hundreds of others.

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  25. That's an incredible photo. I'm sorry they're tearing down a building where you literally came of age.

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  26. I've heard of new car smell, but this is the first I've heard of new church smell.

    BTW, do you think Onan would have done it more often if he had known it was going to make him so famous?

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  27. I loved how you can reconize the beauty in that church and how descriptive your post was. Are you a good writter or something?

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  28. I know what you mean. It really upsets me when I see them bulldozing old buildings to make way for another doughnut shop. (Not that I won't stop in for a doughnut now and then. I mean, we can't all have principles.)

    Seriously, I can see how it would be so much harder to see your church being torn down.

    (I love your photograph, by the way.)

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  29. (Oh, and I just tagged you. Geez, what a pain.)

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  30. It's true, nothing is sacred anymore...

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  31. that really is tragic.. your dad is dead right, of course. and you don't have to be religious to appreciate it.

    and no more jesus with nipples? that *is* sacrilege...

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