Not ‘Just a Building’

Not ‘Just a Building’

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Brody Hale’s Fight to Save Catholic Churches

By Meghan Ferrara

It’s happening across the West. In recent years, a slow trickle has been turning into a steady stream — and in many countries, a Niagara — of beautiful, historic churches being shuttered.

 The grief and frustration from these losses affect entire communities. Worse, most Catholics believe that such losses are inevitable.

 But what many do not realize is that these lovely buildings can be saved — if parishioners take advantage of little-known canon laws designed to address precisely these emergencies.

 Fighting against this tide of despair, Brody Hale is a young American lawyer attempting to educate Catholics and to give them the tools to save their churches.

 Regina Magazine’s Meghan Ferrara recently spoke to him about this work.

 

REGINA: You’re a Millennial, the child of divorced parents.

 

BRODY: I am a 32-year-old cradle Catholic. I was raised by my mother in Tyringham, Massachusetts. Throughout the course of my life, I have had a deep devotion to the Roman Catholic faith, finding from a young age that I gained great spiritual comfort and a sense of clarity of purpose from the study of the church’s teachings, and the writings of such doctors of the church as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.

REGINA: You’ve also been a teacher.

BRODY: I graduated from Tufts University with a BA in history and political science. I participated in Teach for America after college, teaching English, science, and social studies to middle school students in New Orleans,  which was at that time still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. I then completed a Fulbright fellowship in South Korea, where I taught English to university students in the city of Daegu.

REGINA: And a lawyer.

BRODY: I earned a JD from Boston College Law School and an MPA (Master of Public Administration) from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York.

SAINT MARY, CONSHOHOCKEN PA

St. Mary Church was built as the parish church for St. Mary’s Parish in Conshohocken PA. St. Mary’s was a Polish personal parish, set up to serve the Polish immigrants who came to Conshohocken to work in its steel mills and other manufacturing institutions. The mills are nearly all gone now, and Conshohocken has become a trendy place for young urban professionals to live. Gentrification has extensively taken place. In 2014, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia merged all of Conshohocken’s four parishes into a single parish. Concerned about the fate of the church, parishioners sought to prevent its complete closure. I assisted them in the formation of a nonprofit group to raise all of the funds necessary to retain it as a Roman Catholic sacred space, and to restore it. It was announced this April that St. Mary would serve as the site of the new Philadelphia Apostolate of the Fraternity of St. Peter, something that made parishioners quite happy.

Saint Mary's stained glass window

REGINA: How did you become interested in saving churches?

BRODY: My work to ensure that churches continue to exist stems from my belief in the importance of retaining “sacred space” in the world and its value in the lives of Catholics. So many times, as I grew up, and especially in the last 15 years when hundreds of churches have been closed, I have heard again and again that “a church is just a building.”

REGINA: Yep, that’s a common trope coming from those who, by the way, are benefitting from their sale.

BRODY: Canon law clearly states that a church is not “just a building.” Canon 1214 of the Code of Canon Law of 1983 defines a church as a “sacred building,” and other canons explain the difference between “sacred” and “profane” space.

REGINA: Good question. How does the Church define the difference between sacred and profane?

BRODY: To put it simply, “sacred” spaces are those set aside specifically for worship and sacred activities, and that makes them different from one’s home or place of work.

REGINA: Most Catholics in America have no idea about this wave of church closings. 

BRODY:  Growing up, I had no idea that a church could in fact close. The idea was truly foreign to me, as I suspect it is for most Roman Catholics until they are forced to confront it. I came face to face with this reality on Sunday, June 8, 2003. After mass, a meeting was held to discuss the possible closure of the church my family had helped build in 1882 and attended ever since, St. Francis of Assisi in Lee, Massachusetts. After the shock at the idea of the church being closed wore off, I began to consider the implications of such a decision.

REGINA: How so?

BRODY: I thought about my great-great grandparents, Irish immigrants who had labored to build St. Francis Church in 1882. I doubted that they put the nickels and dimes they set aside from their meager wages earned from work in the local paper mills toward building a church they expected to only stand for a little more than 100 years.

I thought of how my late grandfather had chosen to pray in the church before he left for service in World War II, service that included action in Iwo Jima, that he had thanked God by praying in its walls when he had returned, and that he had married his high school sweetheart in the church and buried her from it after she died shortly after giving birth to the last of their nine children. It was St. Francis Church he chose to enter at each of these defining moments of his life, not some other random structure.

I also realized my grandfather was but one of countless individuals who had done the same thing during the course of the church’s history. Even though I knew nothing about canon law that Sunday morning as all of these thoughts went through my mind as I listened to talk of the church’s potential closure, I felt that the peace I consistently experienced while inside of St. Francis of Assisi Church was due to its sacred role.

SAINT JOSEPH, CABERY IL

St. Joseph Church in Cabery was constructed in 1904 as the parish church for St. Joseph’s Parish of Cabery IL. Cabery is a small farming community of a few hundred people; in the Diocese of Joliet. It has always been a small community. In 2015, the Diocese of Joliet closed St. Joseph Parish and intended to also close St. Joseph Church on account of the shortage of priests it is experiencing. I helped a group of parishioners form a nonprofit group which is working to finish concluding an agreement with the Diocese of Joliet under which the church will be transferred to the care of this group. It will exist as a chapel, available for occasional masses, and the group will have the responsibility of paying all expenses associated with its care and restoration.

REGINA: So, your grandfather’s church was threatened.

BRODY: While discussion of closing St. Francis of Assisi Church was tabled in June of 2003 owing to considerable resistance on the part of parishioners at the time, it did not take me long to see the effects of liquidating a parish and a church. In college, I lived close to Sacred Heart Church in Medford, MA. Sacred Heart was solvent in the spring of 2004, and reasonably well attended based on my observations. In spite of this, it became the first of dozens of parishes and churches to close within the Boston Archdiocese as a result of Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley’s “parish reconfiguration program.” I witnessed firsthand the anger, sadness, and loss of faith that came about as a result of this program as I traveled to many of the parishes and churches which were targeted for closure in 2004 and 2005. I kept coming back to one question, if a church is “just a building,” why then does it seem like those who suffer the closure of their church experience such severe physical, emotional and spiritual pain as a result? It seemed to me that if a church were “just a building,” Catholics would not experience so much distress at losing one, especially when it is not difficult to travel a few miles to another to attend Mass.

Saint Joseph's Altar, Cabery, IL

REGINA: Yes, a whole lot of pain.

BRODY:  After witnessing all that happened in Boston, I felt I needed to learn as much as I could about the closure of churches and parishes. I wanted to understand what made churches “special,” and I also believed my own home church of St. Francis of Assisi was not out of the woods. Unfortunately, I was not in time to save St. Francis of Assisi Church. In 2006, my family church was closed by Bishop Timothy Anthony McDonnell of Springfield, in spite of being in the black financially and being packed every Sunday.

SAINT PATRICK, SPRING FORK MO, DIOCESE OF JEFFERSON CITY

Built in 1918, St. Patrick in Spring Fork MO is located in a rural area of the Diocese of Jefferson City. Regular mass ended at St. Patrick in Spring Fork in 1980, and the church was not cared for regularly after that. Following a lightning strike in 2012, the cost of needed repairs led the Diocese of Jefferson City and the Parish that owned St. Patrick’s Church to plan for the permanent closure of the church and its sale. I helped a group of parishioners form a nonprofit group that raised all of the funds needed to restore the church, and which continues to pay all of the expenses associated with its existence as a Roman Catholic church, available for occasional mass.

REGINA: Tragic. And infuriating.

BRODY: I was frustrated that in spite of studying the issue for two years at the time my church closed, I still didn’t understand the specifics of when a church could be closed and whether any alternatives to closure had been tried and found to be successful in other Catholic dioceses and archdioceses either in the United States or internationally.

I threw myself into researching the actual rules governing the closure and sale of Catholic churches, as well as possible alternative courses of action that would make their closure and liquidation unnecessary. Over the course of several more years, I found that these alternatives did exist, and in fact that they had existed for decades. I was extremely frustrated to realize that most Catholics not only did not know of this assistance but believed instead that they could do nothing if their church was threatened. Thus, I began to both create the informational resources that I wish I had when St. Francis of Assisi was facing closure in 2006, and also to reach out and specifically help those who both desired to prevent the closure of their churches and who were willing to do the work necessary to make their dream of retaining their churches as Catholic sacred spaces a reality.

REGINA: Why are churches are so emotionally vital to Catholics?

BRODY: Many who are not aware of the formal designation of churches as sacred spaces nonetheless feel a sense of deep spiritual peace when praying within them. I believe this feeling of peace is tied directly to the status churches hold as sacred buildings. As a sacred space set apart specifically for the practice of the Catholic faith and the worship of God, a church is the physical place on earth where the faithful can feel most closely connected to God and contemplate the life they will spend with him when they pass from this world.

SAINT MARY OF THE ROCK CHURCH, BATESVILLE IN

St. Mary of the Rock was constructed by the German farmers who came to this part of rural Southeastern Indiana in 1844. After a fire in 1906, the interior of the church was rebuilt in the burned out original stone walls. The area remains rural and populated by a largely German American farming community. In 2013, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis decided to merge some of its smaller parishes together. St. Mary of the Rock Church was as a result targeted for complete closure. I helped a group of parishioners form a nonprofit group that has for the last five years paid all of the expenses associated with St. Mary of the Rock Church continuing to exist as a place of occasional Roman Catholic Worship. It remains open 24 hours a day for people to enter and pray in.

REGINA: What about the role of our churches in neighborhoods and villages?

BRODY: I believe the presence of a church in a neighborhood or community in and of itself forces individuals to think of what it represents, i.e. the Catholic faith, even if only for a moment, every time they are within its vicinity. It is doubtless the case that passing close to a Catholic church building has at times caused individuals to think of the faith long enough to enter it, and to avail themselves of the opportunity to pray within it. For some of those who do this, such prayer may reinforce their already strong faith. For others, such prayer may be the first time they have spoken to God in many years, and it may be the beginning of their reversion to the faith. Others who may have never known the Catholic faith may be drawn to it through their chance encounter with a Roman Catholic church, especially one which by its very design predisposes them to worship.

REGINA: What else?

BRODY: Aside from the fact that churches are sacred spaces, they are also for many people tangible connections with the faith lives of members of past generations of their families. Many of those who I have helped save churches have told me of the connection they feel to deceased relatives while praying in a church, especially to parents and grandparents who introduced them to the Catholic faith as children. I believe many people, including myself, draw strength from knowing that their faithful ancestors worshiped in the same church where they are praying today.

 

NEXT ISSUE: How to Save Your Church

 

Featured image: BRODY HALE’S GREAT-GREAT GRANDPARENTS were Irish immigrants who helped to build St. Francis of Assisi church in Lee, Massachusetts.  

 

 

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