Travelling through Prince Edward Island this summer, it was impossible not to notice the plethora of churches. While many remain open, others are closed or are for sale.
A sign in front of one church read, “Church for sale. Bargain basement price”. Other churches have new uses: one church we saw had become a city hall, and another was a food market. All of this hit close to home as my church is also closing.
The closure of churches has become commonplace. Many faith communities have experienced the discomfort that accompanies closing a church. When a church closes, its congregation is forced to think beyond the four walls of its worship space, and to redefine the meaning of church.
The Second Vatican council articulated an image of the church that can help congregations move forward. In this image, the church is more than a building or an institution. Drawing from the formation of the ancient Hebrews into the people of God and to the early gatherings of the first Christians, this image envisions the church as the pilgrim people of God: a community on a journey.
While I have always liked this image, it has taken on new meaning for me as my faith community prepares to lock the doors of a much-beloved building, and wrestles with a more expansive vision of church.
I understand the reasons why my particular church is closing. I understand that bricks and mortar do not make a church; people do. Despite this knowledge, my heart rebels against losing a place that nurtured my faith.
Part of my family’s history is deeply intertwined with this particular place. Five generations ago, my great-grandparents owned the property and lived on the site where the present day church is located. A portion of their home survives in the long-defunct rectory that is attached to the back of the church.
Years ago, my mother, my children and I took a trip down memory lane with my grandmother. We wandered through the old rectory as my grandmother reminisced about her life as a child in the long ago renovated spaces. “Here,” she said, “was where my sisters and I slept. Over there, that was my brother’s room.” When she died a number of years later, she was buried from the church that had been her childhood home.
Last year, we celebrated my daughter’s wedding in this church. My grandmother would have been delighted: where she had once sat on the porch with her future husband, and where her own life had come full circle, her granddaughter began a new life as a married woman.
This is the place where my faith journey began; like other members of my family, I was baptized here as an infant. Though the intervening years took me away to other churches in other places, returning here was a spiritual homecoming.
While my family’s connection to the site of the church is unique, we share our affection for this place with others. For successive generations, families came here to mark life’s most significant events.
Right up until the last Mass, descendants of the first families to sit in the pews walked through the doors on a Sunday morning; children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Italian immigrant families that first populated the parish returned to be married; young parents of today, even if they no longer resided here, came to present their own children for baptism. Our ancestors were buried from here, and the memorial stained glass windows made them present to us.
We practiced our common beliefs and spirituality as we sat in the pews and mingled in the hall. We walked together through life’s best and worst moments. In the benevolent shadow of the church, we inspired one another to live our faith daily through a myriad of subtle actions.
It is difficult to separate our pilgrimage from the building. We associate this place with our spiritual journey and with the deep bonds of friendship that the members of one generation passed onto the next. It is difficult to say goodbye to a place that has meant so much to so many.
With heavy hearts, we lock the doors. With hopeful hearts, we carry with us to a new place the spirit of hospitality, generosity and charity that has animated us for generations. This spirit is part of the DNA of our community. No building owns it or can restrict it; it lives in us. We are the church.
Troy Media columnist Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com.