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.