Sunday, July 13, 2014

Echoes of the Dissolution of Monasteries--in Philadelphia

Father Zuhlsdorf posted a link to a story from The Daily Mail of photos taken in Philadelphia of partially demolished, abandoned Catholic churches. As I scrolled through the story, I kept thinking of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, which left so many beautiful chapels and churches in ruins.

From the remains of these churches in Philadelphia, you can see that they were beautiful sanctuaries of worship; with wonderful architectural bones still standing, there are still glimmers of the art that filled the niches and the side chapels. Parishioners worshipped there, went to Confession on Saturday evening, brought their babies to be baptized, their sons and daughters to be married, their fathers and mothers to be buried. They paid their tithe and left bequests--you can imagine the life of the parish from the life of your parish today.

The parish priests said their first Masses, prepared First Holy Communion and Confirmation classes for the Sacraments, instructed pre-Cana couples--and then sadly, all of them had to see the church stripped, closed, and even partially demolished. The people in the parish may have fought against the closure, raised funds, held raffles, applied for historic building protections, petitioned The Holy See--whatever their efforts, the church was still closed and they went to another parish or parishes.

At the end of the article, the photographer, Matthew Christopher, explained his fascination with these ruined churches:

Mr Christopher's fascination with abandoned spaces started when he was a child. He enjoyed looking at artwork set in buildings that have since decayed.

His fascination with churches stemmed from this genre of art, as many painters in the late 1700s and early 1800s would paint churches and abbeys, closed under Henry VIII.

Later this year a book named 'Abandoned America: The Age of Consequence' will be released documenting some of the most spectacular ruins, including Mr Christopher's church pictures.

You can see more of his spectacular photographs on his website, Abandoned America, and its related Facebook page.

The common folk protested the suppression of the monasteries in England with the Pilgrimage of Grace, but as Father Zuhlsdorf comments, we don't need an uprising--we Catholic laity have to think about the glories of the legacy we've received and help it survive and thrive:

The point is that parishes have bills to pay and parishes need priests.  If you don’t pay the bills and if you don’t provide solid vocations to the priesthood through prayer, promotion and sacrifice, this is what happens.  That means that you, dear readers, must with joy support interest in a vocation to the priesthood in your families.  It also means that you should also provide feedback and support for formation for priests.  Lousy priests can equate to everything from emptying pews to emptying coffers.  Be engaged.

So, photos like these can also underscore the creative destruction that takes place from time to time everywhere.  Sometimes things break down.  Then something new is rebuilt.

But none of what you want and need as Catholics is free.  You can and must (it is a precept of the Church) contribute by your time, your talents and your treasure.

My husband and I have the great good fortune to live and have lived all our lives in a diocese that has grown with new churches and parishes being built in its major metropolitan area, but certainly rural churches have had to close and consolidate the Catholic communities because of changes in population. The parish church I grew up in was demolished to make way for a highway expansion--and that was sorrowful to me even though it wasn't that beautiful to my taste. I was confirmed there and both my sister and I were married there. In other words, it can't always be helped--but when it can, it's up to the Catholic laity to be faithful and fruitful!

When we attend Mass today in the parish church of St. Anthony of Padua, so lovingly and carefully restored several years ago, and so lovingly and carefully built many years ago, I'll look around gratefully for the survival of its beauty, pray for the benefactors, living and dead. Perhaps you can do the same thing today in your parish church. Bon dimanche--Good Sunday!

Attribution: Photograph by Mike Peel (

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