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End of an age


A Protestant scholar's lament for the vanishing urban Catholic church

Little Italy, New York City, 1956. Photo by Leonard Freed/Magnum

Little Italy, New York City, 1956. Photo by Leonard Freed/Magnum

By Martin E. Marty

For decades solid old St. Bridget's Church that abutted the Stevenson Expressway was on my right during morning commutes. I drove the equivalent of four or five trips around the world to and from the University of Chicago with St. Bridget's at my side. Built for throngs to last for ages, it was a landmark. Then in 1992 the wrecking ball demolished it.

The destruction of an urban Catholic church is by now a familiar event, having occurred hundreds of times in the last 20 years, across the nation. The demise of such churches—brought on by demographic shifts, financial straits, and now a growing priest shortage—represents the end of an age that was marked by what one Chicago historian called "the confident Church" and Bostonians termed "the triumphant Church." God's Church did not disappear from Chicago, Boston, or any other U.S. metropolis, but the full pride and often the swagger of Catholic city church leaders and congregants now belong to history. What happened when the old churches, in a way the soul of their neighborhoods and a pulse in their cities, disappeared? What, to the eyes of an outsider to Catholicism, has been lost?

Begin with the brute fact that in the modern metropolis, the old cityscape of steeples is regularly violated and parish neighborhoods chopped up or destroyed.

For a century the St. Bridget church building had symbolized to Chicagoans both Catholic clout and continuity. The clout was most evident in the early 1960s, when the highway builders were thwarted in their plan to simply knock down the holy obstruction. Bridget's, in the steeple-crowded Bridgeport neighborhood on the city's south side, home to generations of Catholic politicians and municipal employees, refused to budge. Since the church would not, the highway had to. Most of today's commuters never knew, and only we seniors remember, why the expressway jags near Archer and Arch. A few low buildings have replaced the church and draw little attention.

The wrecking ball has come to be as much a symbol of urban church life today as bells once were. Chicago is not alone in seeing its cityscape change. The story of closed and destroyed churches is as telling in Detroit (where 30 were closed in the 1980s alone) and Milwaukee (more than 50 closed in the waning 1990s), Buffalo and Brooklyn, and, of course, Boston. Nor was St. Bridget's by any means the grandest of churches in Chicago, the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese in the mid-20th century. But the senior Mayor Daley, Richard J., the most powerful mayor of the century, had married "Sis" (Eleanor Guilfoyle) before its altar. From Civil War times, the parish had sponsored various asylums, orphanages, reform schools, and industrial training centers. And innumerable ceremonies under its roof had marked the most profound passages of life for thousands.

The parish community of St. Bridget's began to lose heart in the 1960s, when the expressway did what expressways do, slicing through the churchyard, the parish, the neighborhood. But most of the decline at St. Bridget's, as at many urban parishes, came from other causes, notably population shifts, the emigration of old parishioners and the immigration of new residents, including non-Catholics and Catholics who are less attached to the traditional practices. Other religious communities experienced such change, as well. Jonathan Sarna and Ellen Smith in their illustrated book The Jews of Boston (1995) depict how the Jewish community there lost its intactness in a new diaspora. They quote a midrash: "A community and a family are similar to a pile of stones: if you remove one stone, the pile becomes shaky." The past four decades or so saw the removal of thousands of stones and the tumbling of huge piles in many neighborhoods.

The old Protestant congregations led the way to the suburbs, with Catholics and Jews following in their path. On Chicago's west side 50 years ago there were more than 200 Jewish institutions—synagogues and the like. Twenty years later there were none. The city's Catholic archdiocese has closed more than 75 parishes since 1986. Many left-behind Catholic buildings now lead a born-again life with non-Catholic African-American, Asian-American, or Latino congregations. The closings and demolitions of largely white Catholic churches in the cities reveal much about the larger fate of Church, religion, city, and nation.

WHAT HAS been lost with these churches and parishes? To begin with, an aesthetic change occurs when parishes close. Here I'm not speaking in terms of "decline" or "improvement," but simply of change, which has complex effects. Grant that many of the new, suburban church structures possess more architectural integrity than did most of their predecessors in "the old neighborhood." Still, the grand closed buildings had style—and stories. St. Bridget's Irish-American stalwarts used to brag that theirs was the only Lombardy Romanesque church building on this continent, that the design originated with Irish monks who migrated to Italy.

In most major U.S. cities there are Catholic edifices that a scholar of architecture would pronounce dreadful (though a student of material culture or folk art might counter, "They're so bad they're good"). Decorated with mediocre stained glass, crowded with overwrought niches, kitsch paintings, and saccharine saints' statues they may be, but these buildings have a power over memory that draws even lapsed members back for a last visit when their closings loom. Can one picture being nostalgic for the newer buildings—the sort that the theologian Joseph Sittler called "suburban dress shoppe church architecture?"

CATHOLIC COMMUNICANTS left the cities for the pastures to which the expressways led but where closeness and tradition do not so easily thrive. As students of U.S. parish history know, most Catholic churches rose from the plantings of pennies-per-week offerings by struggling laborers. Participation by Christians and other religious people in charitable, voluntary, associational life is both a familiar sign and major contributor of benevolence in our republic. The emptying out of urban Catholic parishes, the closing of their schools, and the dispersal of their leadership and followers means at best that new channels for good works must be discovered or invented. Most urban Catholics who drift off into individualized modes of "spirituality" are not likely to link up again for charitable purposes.

To borrow a term from Father Divine, a black leader of many decades ago, parishes "tangibilificate" the Church. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church for most believers is a remote ideal compared to the parish, where the ways and beliefs of Catholicism become palpable, even olfactorily memorable. Philosopher Ernest Gellner has written appreciatively that "traditional cultures" emit odors, something lacking in modern cultures. The banquets, sodality gatherings, and weddings in city parishes differ from the sanitized suburban variants, and as a visitor one can discern this on first inhalation.

The late Joseph Kitagawa, a scholar of Buddhism, observed that Catholicism is a complicated network of dogmas and laws and liturgies. To most practicing Catholics, however, the Church as mediated through the parish comes across as a complex web of practices, customs, and behaviors through which faith gets expressed. Therein lies much of the beauty of healthy parishes, and why to my ears the word "parochial" is a pleasing, not pejorative, term: Here at this altar is where the once-young couple was married. Here in this gym their grandparents learned to shoot baskets and met at a dance. There under that statue is the brass plate identifying the donors, an immigrant couple who made America, Chicago, Bridgeport their second home. There above this altar is the window whose rendering of a biblical story was stamped on the minds of children. And there in those pews sat young students who became priests—as two-score of St. Bridgetites did in Chicago.

When I was young I wrote books critical of chumminess, of the huddling, meeting of like-with-like in parishes. I argued that we should seek new forms of mission through which more Christians would become alert to the need for justice and find instruments for pursuing it. I still hold to the point, but the years have also brought another perspective. Urban parishes that remain open through waves of immigration and neighborhood change are also the places where old-timers meet newcomers and friendships develop. What Boston University's Peter Berger calls "mediating structures" exist there, to soften the blows of change, to mitigate deteriorating services and schools, and to help people counter the loneliness that comes with isolation in urban life. Closing a parish means blighting such friendships and mediations.

Fr. Gerald O'Reilly of Chicago's St. Laurence Catholic Church, which closed last summer, said at the time: "I know that we are going to lose a lot of souls . . . some to Protestant churches, some to the comfort of their living room La-Z-boy chairs, and some even to Farrakhan's mosque, which is just a short distance from here." This Protestant does not like to think of souls being "lost" to us. Yet O'Reilly's forecast of trends seems accurate.

Whoever cares about the Church and the city, the soul and the spirit, has to hope that within the changes Catholicism in America has undergone there can be resurrection. We will not again see "the Church confident," or "the Church triumphant," but we can hope to see the Church well-poised to help gather people of God on their pilgrimage to the eternal city, inspiring them to help build a more humane temporal city along the way.


Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His books, which number more than 50, include the three-volume Modern American Religion (1986–96).


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