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When a beautiful church closes

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By Mark Azzara

Dear Friend,

A few years ago my pastor included a web link in the church bulletin about the closing of another Catholic Church, an architectural masterpiece in Quebec City that needed an estimated $10 million in repairs. Translation: unaffordable.

When I was a full-time journalist covering religion I had to write about the pain that some Catholics felt when they were told they must either find the money to repair their aging churches or be prepared to leave them behind.

I was reminded of the sad trajectory of church buildings when I read a recent online article about the demise of America’s grand railroad stations. I worked inside of one such station at a newspaper housed in the train station in Waterbury, Conn., which is famous for its clock tower (complete with a clock that no longer keeps the correct time).

As flashy as modern buildings may be, there is nothing like the soaring multi-arched ceiling in my newspaper’s news room to make your jaw drop. If you’re ever in Waterbury I suggest you visit the front desk and ask for permission to visit the newsroom and see that ceiling.

There is a nice train station in my town, but the commuter trains now stop on the other side of the railyard, at a brick structure erected oh, I dunno, maybe 20 years ago. The reason: The new train cars require raised platforms for passengers, but the overhangs at the old station prevent raised platforms from being built.

That old train station has been rescued by a railroad historical society. It evokes nowhere near the grand fashion of that station back in the day. But at least it’s still standing and you can walk into it and look around (for a small fee).

I mention these incidents to point out the kind of connection we have to physical structures. Most of us admire grand buildings and, just as important, the extraordinary skill needed to construct them. They are part of our shared history.

But the downside is that we tend to prize the things of this world too much. There are preservationists for whom no cost is too great to save this or that historic building, even if its next use may be totally unrelated to the reason why it was built.

Many Quebec churches, for example, have been reborn as exercise gyms, restaurants, etc. The buildings remain; God doesn’t.

I wonder what would happen if we were to look at our faith the same way we look at beautiful buildings. I wonder what would happen if we felt the same connection, the same desire to preserve, defend and rehabilitate our faith to its old glory.

As beautiful and magnificent as that aging Quebec City church is, it’s not as beautiful as our faith. As much as it may have been the center of life for a community at one time it’s not the center of faith. The human heart is. And what happens in our hearts always is more important than outward appearances.

Worshiping together is always more important than the venue, and true worship is never diminished by the lack of niceties such as stained-glass windows.

I don’t want to see any church fall into disuse, much less become a coffee shop or moviehouse. It saddens me a little when that happens. And as an old railroad buff I can say the same thing about train stations.

But I have to be careful to keep my priorities in order. Sometimes I think we lose the things we hold dear to us because it’s God’s way of asking us what’s really important to us. And if anything ultimately is more important to us than God then we have a problem.

Sad though such church closings may be, the spokesman for one diocese kept things in balance when he said in an April newspaper story that the church’s primary responsibility “is not to maintain heritage buildings but to proclaim the word of Jesus Christ.”

All God’s blessings – Mark

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Mark Azzara

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and a non-denominational prayer community and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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