Magazine article The American Conservative

From Chapels to Condos: Is There Still Room for the Sacred in the City?

Magazine article The American Conservative

From Chapels to Condos: Is There Still Room for the Sacred in the City?

Article excerpt

At night it stands a silent and dark shadow against the glittering lights of Boston's Back Bay, the only sound the almost riparian traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Yet step closer and one sees that the edifice is not merely vacant, but hollow--a Gothic Revival skeleton that has given up the ghost.

This was the Roman Catholic Holy Trinity Church in the South End. It was closed amid controversy and in 2008, the Archdiocese of Boston sold it to developers who planned to remake it into 33 luxury condominiums. Renderings show a gutted interior with a modernist glass and steel structure erupting out of the stonework like a skin disease.

The initial controversy was about more than an historic loss: a Traditional Latin Mass community was displaced, and there was a perception that the archdiocese wanted to sell valuable land to pay legal costs related to the sex-abuse scandal of the time.

But the closure of historic urban houses of worship has as much to do with demographic trends originating decades ago--and the challenges of maintaining a building after decades of deferred maintenance--as it did with any scandal or decline in attendance.

Churches are intimately tied to their neighborhoods, especially in areas built before mass automobile ownership. In America's cities, these ties often remain. In the 19th century, the connection was even more pronounced, as people of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds settled together for mutual aid and protection in a challenging, sometimes corrupt and hostile, urban environment.

The ethnic parishes of Catholic immigrants, for example, formed a nucleus where the traditions of the old country were passed down. The younger generation was discouraged from intermarriage, and old languages were preserved, in some cases into the 21st century. Parishioners, suspicious of public education in a Protestant country, formed their own schools and started societies to promote temperance, provide medical care, and pay for funerals and pensions for widows and orphans. The first credit union in the United States, St. Mary's Bank in Manchester, N.H., was organized by a Catholic parish priest.

Holy Trinity was no different. The first parochial school in New England was organized by the parish, said church historian Robert Sauer, while German immigrants who heard Holy Mass there brought Christmas trees and cards to America and helped found the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over its 164 years of existence, parishioners organized 22 religious sodalities and confraternities, an orphanage and old people's home, charities devoted to the poor, Catholic missions around the world, and relief for the people of Germany and Austria after World War II.

Today, according to the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places, churches and religious buildings of all faiths continue to have an economic impact on their neighborhoods. Their research found that almost all have some sort of community-service programs, and most have at least four running concurrently. The same study estimated that in Philadelphia alone religious congregations contribute over $100 million to their community annually--about $144,000 per congregation. Most of that comes from measuring volunteer time as though it were paid labor, but they also provide space, staff, and direct financial support to neighborhood services. Sixty percent of churches surveyed had food pantries, and nearly as many hosted music performances and clothing donations. Over 40 percent had soup kitchens.

While these activities can result in some sidewalk presence, contributing to neighborhood vitality and putting eyes on the street, churches interact with their neighborhoods differently than shops, restaurants, and residences.

"They give a sense of refuge or respite," said Sara Joy Proppe, founder of the Proximity Project, a Minnesota group that seeks to involve congregations in urban planning. She said that a research agency, the Barna Group, found that while millennials say they go to suburban megachurches for anonymity, many are also drawn to older churches. …

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