During my four years as a student at Bishop O’Reilly, I often found myself gazing at the beautiful mural painted above the front doors in the school’s main foyer. The painting, of course, depicts the local parishes that at one time supported the school. Of course, I’d always eye my own church a little bit longer than the rest. I was so proud to see it up there. It’s the little brick church with maroon doors on the top left hand side: St. Martha’s. My great-grandparents helped to build that parish, mortgaging their farm to help pay for the original structure. They were Polish, as were most of the new Catholic settlers in Fairmount Springs, and the church they built reflected that heritage. Although a lot of people today decry the existence of so many “ethnic churches,” often times located just down the street from one another, I think they still have value. Every church has a history, and so often times that history is quite a story! Ethnic churches are many times the only remaining piece of one’s ancestral heritage. Sure, knowing a few songs in Polish, or learning your Italian grandmother’s cherished recipes isn’t going to radically change life for the better. But keeping these things alive gets to the heart of being human. If we don’t take pride in our past, how can we look positively at the future?
I know I’ll never forget the outpouring of support one year ago when it was first announced that Bishop O’Reilly, and so many other schools, would be forced to close. I try to be optimistic and hope that someday we’ll see a diocese opening new schools (and re-establishing the old ones) and that the tradition of Catholic education will be revitalized. But for now, we must make the best of what remains and work for the success of these schools. However, there’s another battle brewing right now that is will soon be getting a lot more attention. Perhaps the closing of churches is not as emotionally charged as the school crisis was because many of these churches are facing financial hardship and dwindling numbers. However, any church whose parishioners are willing and able to work hard to keep going, there is no reason, neither financial nor the ever-popular “shortage of priests” excuse, to close the church. I’d much rather see a church open for Mass just once a month rather than see a once vibrant church with shuttered doors. Why is this important? I’ve already made the case for churches as institutions of our cultural heritage. Yet there is even more to it than that. A neighborhood church, just like a neighborhood school, is a pillar of the community. It’s a place where you meet your neighbors and together worship God “in the beauty of holiness.” Looking at another angle, what type of message does large, empty churches signal to non-Catholics?
There are two recent situations that prompted me to sit down and write this essay. First would be the closure of Holy Rosary in Ashley. From what I understand, the parishioners of the now defunct parish, whose dwindling numbers could no longer support, requested this course of action. Nevertheless, Holy Rosary is – was – a beautiful church architecturally, both inside and out, and its towering presence now signifies only a sad state of affairs in our diocese. Perhaps even more disheartening is the situation currently taking place in Pittston. This predominantly Catholic city was already hit hard during the last two rounds of school closings. It is painful enough to drive down William Street, knowing that two pillars of Catholic education once located there sit empty. But now the Pittston skyline will also feature the steeples of two closed churches: St. Casimir’s and St. John the Baptist, along with St. Joseph’s in Port Griffith. Once again, is it really necessary to close all of these churches? Is money the primary consideration here? In the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will be faced with the church closing dilemma with increasing frequency. Before you join any committees or form an opinion on the matter, please consider what I’ve said here. Ask yourself the question: Does heritage and tradition matter? I hope you’ll agree that it does.