Thursday, April 3, 2014

Recording History with Religious Buildings


Religious buildings can be an unexpected record of history.

From Europe's great cathedrals to the anonymous megachurch warehouses of today, religious structures tell stories of not just theological trends, but architectural, social, economic, and even political trends.  These stories don't have to span several centuries, however.  In some cities, all it takes is a few decades to see how time and change have been documented by consecrated wood, bricks, mortar, and glass.

For example, there's the grand, quintessential New England church in my Mom's hometown.  Once a proud sentinel of Christianity on a hilltop in coastal Sedgwick, Maine, First Baptist used to be a hub of village life.  Today, after the congregation's membership dwindled to two - the pastor, and his wife - it's owned by the local historical society, which doesn't have the funds to keep it repaired.  So there it sits, rotting in plain sight, with a treasure trove of stained glass windows reputed to be worth upwards of $6 million held hostage behind warped Plexiglas; too fragile to remove, with the salty sea air corroding its century-old solder.

Christianity in Maine, and throughout New England, has become an anachronism.  It's a relic of another time.  Some Christ-centered congregations still exist across the region, but they are usually too small and poor to fund the expensive upkeep of picturesque antique church buildings, whose wood has become brittle or rotten in the climate's extreme seasons.  These buildings are woefully uninsulated, and fraught with design features that cannot be cheaply retrofitted to accommodate handicapped people and modern fire codes.

Some of these wonderful old churches have become restaurants, or libraries, or civic auditoriums, or even private homes.  Others have been torn down, while yet others, like First Baptist Church of Sedgwick, quietly disintegrate; still too iconic to tear down, yet too big for any faith-based use in a village where organized religion has become marginalized.

As has, indeed, what used to be its robust sense of community.

The white steepled churches so characteristic of rural New England were built in towns and villages that enjoyed a strong sense of interpersonal connectivity and civic purpose.  Employment centered around local agriculture, perhaps some small industry, and providing consumer goods to local customers.  That was a time in which religion, if not faith itself, played a significant role in the culture of American society, which meant churches were usually centered in, or near, the village square.

These days, however, hardly anybody farms New England's increasingly pricey real estate.  Small industry is practically extinct across much of America's North, meaning village residents have to drive miles for the closest jobs, and those far-away places are now where they shop, bank, receive healthcare, and go to school.  Meanwhile, not only has the village community withered away into a handful of stubborn old-timers and newish families where both spouses have long commutes, coastal locales in idealized states like Maine are burdened with high-priced housing catering to Boomers who are retiring and seeking second homes.  Generation after generation, more local kids move away for better jobs, and affordable housing.  About the only time an entire village gets together to do much of anything anymore is during their annual meetings, a ritual across much of New England, where property owners gather to try and hold the line against ever-rising local taxes.

Of course, it's not just in Maine where old churches tell a story of transition, religious apathy, and shifting priorities.  Here in Arlington, Texas, where I live, several churches that were built during this city's early boom years of the 1950's have been repurposed as well.  One of them, a dated structure reeking of Modernist bravado - it's circular in shape, on a sloping hill - sat vacant after its congregation dissolved until a community theater group purchased it.  Soon, unfortunately, they ran into steep maintenance and remodeling costs to keep it functional and safe.  It now sits vacant on a major thoroughfare, having been set afire twice after homeless vagrants are believed to have sought shelter within it, and the theater group teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Another repurposed church building sits just a mile or so away, a former Baptist church that struggled with declining membership as its neighborhood underwent a transition from small, wood-frame, single-family homes to high-density, low-rent apartments.  After the property, whose sanctuary features a dramatically pitched roof in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, languished for a couple of years, a school for deaf children bought it.  But again, the new non-profit owners have struggled with the high costs associated with maintaining a 1950's-era structure, especially with all of the regulations now in place for educational facilities.

Then there's the saga of what's going on in Syracuse, New York, one of America's northern cities where the Roman Catholic Church has been on a closing spree.  They've been padlocking glorious worship spaces because their parishioners have either died or moved away - or lost interest in religion, like they have in New England.  In New York City, stories are told of warehouses full of icons, old stained-glass windows, ornate pulpit furniture, pews, candelabras, brassware, and other accoutrements of Roman Catholic worship and education that have been salvaged from closed churches across America's largest diocese.  As Catholics move to southern states, some new churches are being built for them, and clerics are trekking up to Gotham to browse the collection of church furniture and art that's been mothballed.  Yet supply far exceeds demand.

At any rate, in 2010, the Catholic Church closed Syracuse's century-old Holy Trinity sanctuary, a splendid brick edifice whose tall spires command a clear view of the city's downtown district.  Built by immigrants of a former German neighborhood on the north side of town, the streets today around Holy Trinity are lined by neat yet old and, frankly, unremarkable houses on tiny lots.  Like most rust-belt cities, Syracuse has been hemorrhaging jobs and middle-class taxpayers for decades, and there's little left in most of its original neighborhoods to attract the type of newcomers who are willing and able to support a traditional parish like Holy Trinity.

As much dismay the local diocese caused when they first closed Holy Trinity Church, even more dismay has arisen over recent plans by a non-profit educational organization to purchase the property and use it for their school.

And, um, a mosque.

Yes, the new owners of Holy Trinity are Muslim.  And not only that, but they have won the right to cut off the stone crosses that were originally installed atop several spires along the sanctuary's steeples and roofline.  After all, say the former church's new Muslim owners, they are not supposed to worship symbols.

Because of its age and architectural significance, Holy Trinity's sanctuary is on the city's historic preservation list, and a previous attempt to remove stained glass windows from the church was thwarted by Syracuse's landmark commission.  Some former members of the church assumed that a similar ruling would be made for the crosses, which they argued were integral elements of the building's design.  But this time, the landmark commission ruled in favor of the crosses' removal.

How the Muslims can live with stained glass windows that undoubtedly boast any number of Christian symbols in them - but not the rooftop crosses - hasn't been explained.

Part of the contentiousness surrounding the stone crosses, obviously, is based on the fact that an Islamic group made the request.  In a blue-collar city like Syracuse, where ethnic ties run strong among the Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish, and Jewish descendants of its original settlers, it's hard enough to overcome the reality that, according to the Islamic group, 5,000 Muslims will be using this space, while the Roman Catholics had to close it for lack of worshippers.  Economic transitions like the ones Syracuse has been undergoing for at least two generations now are hard enough.  Cultural and religious transitions can be even harder.

Yet you might be surprised to learn that having Muslims remove crosses from an unused Christian facility doesn't really bother me.  And not just because I don't live in Central New York.  If the practice of Christianity is disappearing in a city, at what point to Christian buildings become obsolete, and eligible for repurposing?

If Syracuse's Roman Catholics who live in this neighborhood were serious about their faith, would they have stopped participating in this parish?  If the city's constantly-shrinking population is solely to blame, as Syracuse Catholics moved not just to suburbia, but to other parts of the country, who's left to really mourn the loss of Holy Trinity as a Catholic parish?  Sure, it's a nice building, with a rich history, and it's a powerful symbol of the vibrancy of the community that once thrived in the shadows of its steeples.  Nevertheless, like the Muslims said in their petition to remove the crosses, symbols aren't to be worshipped.  By Muslims, or Christians.

Granted, in a place like Syracuse, there must be plenty of empty shopping centers, office buildings, and other non-church structures that are on the market, vacant and ready to be repurposed.  Why did they pick a beloved Catholic church whose crosses they'd want to take down?  Is there some subtle message they may be trying to send, like the folks who wanted to construct an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center?

At least they're not asking for permission to tear down the building and build something from scratch.  At least Holy Trinity isn't going to sit and decay like my Mom's childhood church is doing in Maine.

But do you see what is happening with Holy Trinity?  It's building is telling a story.  It's the history of its neighborhood, and of immigrants who raised families who moved onwards and outwards.  Taking their faith with them?  Perhaps.  Or leaving it behind?  Now the newcomers are Muslim, and while there's a lot of political baggage in that, why should it be their fault if they've found Christian buildings that are no longer being used by Christians?

I'm not politically correct enough to deny that there are a lot of things to blame Muslims for in our world.  But repurposing a church that is no longer relevant isn't one of them.

That's simply religious buildings chronicling the history of the United States.  Not just in Syracuse, but Maine, New England, and even here in Arlington, Texas.

If anything, it's the history being chronicled that should disturb us.
_____

Update:
  If you'd like to see the faded splendor of Holy Trinity's interior, click here.


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