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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 22, 2009

Mourn the loss of beautiful churches, then build vibrant new communities of worship

Illustrations by Forest Byrd

We love looking at old pastoral paintings of towns, back when church steeples dominated the scene. This was before the blocky skyscrapers, symbols of corporate-based economy, defined our skylines.

In the old paintings, ethereal spires reach heavenward, symbolizing the importance of spirituality. They are supported by structures built for worship, the outward signs of a community that came together to build something of enduring beauty.

Even those of us who are not Catholic were saddened this week by the announcement from Albany’s Roman Catholic Diocese that 33 churches will close.

Anticipation was palpable at the end of last week as parishioners wondered which churches would close. One visitor to our office reminisced over the close-knit Irish Catholic neighborhood of her girlhood. Everyone worshipped at the same church and she knew them all. Like so many others, she moved to the suburbs after World War II and left the church behind, attending a new one in Guilderland.

The problem isn’t specific to the Capital Region of New York. Across our country in the last four decades, attendance at Mass is down along with the number of priests and nuns and Catholic schools. The numbers are staggering.

Between 1965 and 2002, the number of Catholics in the United States rose from 45 to 65 million, according to statistics from Kenneth Jones’s Index of Leading Catholic Indicators. But, at the same time, Mass attendance has plummeted. A Gallup poll in 1958 reported that close to three quarters (74 percent) of Catholics went to Sunday Mass. In 1994, a University of Notre Dame study found the attendance rate was closer to one quarter (26.6 percent).

Priests, according to the Index, numbered 58,000 in 1965 and by 2002 had dropped to 45,000, and it is predicted by 2020 there will be 31,000. More priests now are between the ages of 80 and 84 than 30 to 34. In 1965, there were 1,575 ordinations for a net gain of 725 priests, while in 2002, there were 450 ordinations for a net loss of 810. In 1965, one percent of parishes were without a resident priest. In 2002, fifteen percent had no priests.

The dearth of priests has been fueled by a collapse in the number of seminary students. There were 49,000 seminarians in 1965. By 2002, the number had decreased by 90 percent to 4,700.

The same is true of nuns. There were 180,000 in 1965 and in 2002 there were 75,000 with 40,000 predicted by 2020.

Diocesan high schools fell by more than half in that time period, from 1,566 to 786 while students at those schools dropped from almost 700,000 to 386,000. The number of students at parochial grade schools went from 4.5 million in 1965 to 1.9 million in 2002.

Stability and tradition have given way to sweeping change. We can’t fault the Albany Diocese for closing churches or merging parishes. The current system couldn’t be sustained.

We live in times where people depend less on familiar institutions. Many fraternal organizations have fallen by the wayside — from the granges that were central meeting places in rural communities to the Masonic lodges that were centers for city and village gatherings.

While the number of Catholics in the United States is rising, fewer of them are going to church. Each of us in this high-tech era can pursue our own interests — finding like-minded sites on our computers, or switching our television through dozens of channels to find one that matches our mood for the moment, or listening to our own kind of music on our individual iPods rather than gathering in a concert hall to hear the same music.

The fabric of our modern society is more about individual threads. Where is the whole cloth? Where is the community that, together, could build a magnificent church to endure for centuries?

The church in our midst that is closing is a newer church, St. Bernadette’s in Berne. It was built in the 1960s, as a mission church of St. Lucy’s in Altamont. A humble building, St. Bernadette’s is home to a vibrant and caring community.

“It’s a beautiful little church,” said one of the parishioners, Margery Smith Garry. “We’re a community,” she told our reporter, Jo E. Prout.

“It’s devastating,” said Theresa Casal, a lector at St. Bernadette’s, of its 2010 closing. “It’s a very close-knit family there.”

During the recent ice and snow storms, parishioners checked on each other, she said. “If somebody needed a ride,” she said, “we’d see that they got to a service. With the family atmosphere at St. Bernadette’s, we look out for one another.”

She reiterated, “It’s a family. We do more than just worship together.” Activities at the church include coffee times after worship, potlucks and advent wreath-making, and study groups, she said. “It’s not all about praying; it’s a lot of fun.”

The church is a boon to those at both ends of the age spectrum. It was founded in part to provide religious instruction to the children in the Berne school, across the street from the church, so they wouldn’t have to be bused away, Garry said. And St. Bernadette’s is easier for the elderly to get to than a church off the Hill.

“This is a church that’s seven miles from my home,” said Garry, a retired doctor. “My children have taught me, when the weather is like this,” she said about winter conditions, “you don’t drive. I’ve listened to them.”

“What are we going to do about our seniors?” Casal asked.

Sister Mary Lou Liptak, the parish life director for both St. Bernadette’s and St. Lucy’s church, has an answer. “We’re going to rework our infrastructure,” she said. “Instead of two communities, we become one.”

We know those in St. Lucy’s will be welcoming, as a letter from Bishop Howard Hubbard, read at Masses this past weekend, urged. Parishioners need to embrace those whose churches have closed. We feel confident rides will be offered to those on the Hill who are too elderly or infirm to drive to St. Lucy’s and that the Hilltown children will be welcomed into the classes at St. Lucy’s.

The church family will grow and be the stronger for it.

Casal concluded, “We’re going to be hopeful it will be a positive thing….We’re a combined community. It’s really just the place where we worship that has changed. It’s not the family.”

Some wounds will take time to heal. Much as we need to mourn the death of someone we love, we feel it’s only right to stop now and mourn the loss of the once vibrant, still beautiful churches in our midst that will no longer ease the faithful through the deepest grief and profoundest joys of the human experience.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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