success stories

Posted April 4, 2004

When Churches Disappear

The Boston Globe
March 14, 2004
By Gerald Gamm

PARISHES MAP OUT the modern history of Boston. Since the middle of the 19th century, when the great migration from Ireland transformed a Yankee town into a Catholic stronghold, parish boundaries have defined neighborhoods and given them identities. Strict lines have separated one territorial parish from another, and the lives of parishioners have revolved in fixed orbits around their parish center.

Like the sun, the parish was immovable and immutable. Its resilience set it apart from every other kind of local institution. The parish survived arson and scandal, white flight and blockbusting. It survived ineffective pastors, financial troubles, the loss of the Latin Mass, and the busing crisis. The parish, with its church and school, sustained neighborhoods and reassured residents.

But the source of the parish's unique strength has now proven its fatal weakness. The archdiocesan hierarchy, which created parishes and subsidized them during times of weakness, guaranteed the viability of the Catholic parish long after most other churches and synagogues in the city had closed their doors. Now, however, Archbishop Sean O'Malley has announced that large numbers of the archdiocese's parishes must close, including many schools. His decision reflects not only a decline in donations following the recent priest abuse scandal, but also long-term changes in the archdiocese - fewer priests, dwindling attendance, the deteriorating condition of church buildings, and the migration from cities to suburbs.

The archdiocese approaches a new task with its ancient emphasis on order and diligence. The logic of central authority remains absolutely intact. But Boston's stunned neighborhoods reel from the consequences.

. . .

Fifty years ago, Boston's parishes were secure. Dorchester was home to the greatest network of parishes in the archdiocese, and its 13 parishes brimmed with self-confidence. St. Peter's Parish celebrated 226 marriages and 574 infant baptisms in 1947. With its grand puddingstone church atop Meeting House Hill and its prestige as the original Dorchester parish, St. Peter's operated on the scale of a large New England town. Throughout the 1950s, more than 1,100 children attended its parochial school every year, and at least another thousand regularly attended Sunday school. The 1964 parish bulletin reported times for 10 separate Masses every Sunday and every Holy Day.

St. Peter's was exceptional in its prosperity, but every Dorchester parish was flourishing. In 1950, even a modest parish like St. Ambrose' or St. Matthew's celebrated 50 weddings and 200 infant baptisms. St. William's, one of these smaller parishes, included some of Boston's wealthiest Catholic families, who lived in single-family homes over the bridge on Savin Hill, as well as many working-class families who lived in three-deckers nearer to the pink stucco, Spanish-mission-style parish church. St. William's parishioners took special pride in their school band, which in 1954 was invited to lead the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City.

Today, many of Boston's urban parishes scrape along with financial help from the archdiocese. But in the '40s and '50s, as large numbers of Catholics began settling in towns outside Boston, the archdiocese looked to these urban parishes to provide low-interest loans to pay for the construction of new suburban churches. According to its parish history, St. Mark's in Dorchester - one-time parish of Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald - was "the leading financial bulwark of the Archdiocese" in the 1950s. Today it is tentatively marked for closure.

In mid-century Boston, the city's Protestants and Jews supported large, vibrant congregations, but the Catholic parish was unique in the way that it defined turf. As I recount in my 1999 book "Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed," the parish structure was essential in anchoring Catholics once Boston's residents began leaving areas like Dorchester for the suburbs. The parish, unlike the synagogue or the Protestant church, successfully slowed the out-migration of Catholics. In the early years, it buttressed their resistance to racial change. But now the parish reaches out to diverse communities, keeping old-time Catholics in their neighborhoods even as it welcomes newcomers.

. . .

The Catholic parish was unique in three respects. First, it rigidly defined membership. Protestants and Jews were free to choose their own congregations, but until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics (at least those who weren't members of an Italian or Lithuanian or Polish church) were assigned to a parish by their home address. In 1959, when the archbishop removed a few streets from St. Peter's Parish and transferred them to nearby St. Ambrose' to relieve overcrowding, parishioners were traumatized. A long-time Bloomfield Street resident wrote to the cardinal, explaining that she and her two elderly sisters were all that remained of a family that had lived in St. Peter's for more than 80 years. With the change in boundaries, "we are told that we do not belong," she wrote. "We have never belonged to another parish, I graduated from the Parish school. May we not continue to belong to St. Peter's?" The answer was an emphatic no.

Second, the parish was firmly rooted in a specific neighborhood. The church building was a permanent structure, and its location was essential to its identity. Each time the archbishop dedicated one of Dorchester's churches, he sprinkled holy water on the sturdy walls of the building, then on the altar itself. St. Peter's Church, built from the very rock it sits in, is an exemplar. St. William's Church, resplendent in its pink stucco, was described as a permanent landmark on the 1910 day that it was consecrated.

Seven decades later, when an arsonist burned the church to the ground, the parish and its neighborhood were inseparable. "When you talk about St. William's Church, you're talking about Savin Hill," William O'Shea, a parishioner, explained to a Globe reporter. "If you don't rebuild St. William's, it'd be like taking Savin Hill off the map." So, on the authority of Cardinal Humberto Medeiros and the financial commitment of its parishioners, St. William's rose again.

Third and finally, the parish rested on the authority of the church hierarchy. It was the parishioners themselves who raised the money and breathed life into their church, but only the archbishop could create parishes and authorize the construction of churches and schools. While synagogues and Protestant churches competed with one another for members and funds, every parish enjoyed a monopoly within its borders. The archbishop also assigned priests, which meant that he might transfer an excellent pastor out of a parish, while retaining an unpopular priest despite the protests of parishioners.

. . .

The virtues of such hierarchy and authority were never clearer than in the last decades of the 20th century. As white Catholics began leaving the city in increasing numbers, many urban parishes struggled to pay bills, repair roofs, and fill their pews. In some parishes, Haitians and Vietnamese and Hispanics resuscitated the old churches and sent their children to the parish schools. Since the 1960s, successive archbishops of Boston have committed the archdiocese to subsidizing parishes that could no longer support themselves. Just when synagogues and many Protestant churches relocated out of the city or closed their doors entirely, Catholic parishes stayed and helped stabilize neighborhoods.

In recent years, urban parishes have been powerful agents of integration and inclusion. "We are not a wealthy parish, and we don't have all the answers, but we do try to welcome and respect everyone, to help those in need, to support young people and old people, and to take action for what is right," writes Paul Dobbs, a parishioner of St. Mark's, in a public letter that he sent Monday to supporters of Dot Art, a nonprofit arts organization in Dorchester. St. Mark's Parish, a candidate for closure, "is the very grassroots glue that holds Central Dorchester together," according to Dobbs. It is an institution that works tirelessly to build "genuine community across boundaries of race, ethnicity, and economics."

Bill Walczak, director of the Codman Square Health Center, located blocks away from St. Mark's Church, agrees. "The St. Mark's area has no other institutions which can help this neighborhood maintain its multiracial/multicultural community," he contends. St. Peter's and St. Mark's parishes, once landmarks of Irish Dorchester, are of "continuing pivotal importance as the city has evolved," Walczak believes.

Neighborhood associations, which by themselves are relatively minor organizations, unwittingly demonstrate how thoroughly parishes define urban space. Dorchester's five longstanding neighborhood associations, including the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association and St. Mark's Civic Association, have all traditionally identified themselves as secular groups. Yet their membership boundaries replicate the 20th-century parish map.

Suburban towns gain identity from an overlapping web of institutions, all of which reinforce the boundaries of their community - public schools, churches and synagogues, firehouses, police stations, town halls, libraries, shopping districts. In most of the compact neighborhoods of Boston, though, only the parish has been a reliable anchor of community life. Tearing down parish boundaries threatens the integrity of countless neighborhoods. "If we had to close," a St. Peter's parishioner told a reporter from the Globe last month, "the people in this neighborhood would have nowhere to go. At this church, it's not just a matter of going to Mass."

. . .

Suppressing a parish, especially a thriving one, is an aggressive act. But in the judgment of Archbishop O'Malley and other church leaders, it is a necessary act. Indeed, the existing configuration of parishes does not reflect the long-time decline in the numbers of urban Catholics, and the shortage of priests is acute.

Unlike its 20th-century counterpart, the Catholic parish of our time resembles a Protestant church or a synagogue in its impermanence. But there is one regard in which the parish remains unique. The parish's life and death rest not in the hands of its own parishioners but in the hands of a centralized authority. The church hierarchy, which drew the original map of Catholic Boston, certainly has the power to redraw it.

Still, the laity are making their concerns known. In promising to accelerate its decisions about the fate of parishes, the archdiocese is responding to the uncertainty and fear of parishioners. Even those who recognize that their church may soon be closing are anxious to salvage some part of their neighborhood's identity, whether a school or a particular parish program.

"I would really like to see other alternatives than total shutdowns," Mary Hogan, a St. William's parishioner, explained to a Globe reporter. About 240 students currently attend St. William's Elementary School. Most of them are white or Vietnamese, though the school also enrolls several African-American and Hispanic students. The famous school band that marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade is long forgotten. Keeping the school open cannot be justified as an act of sentiment. Rather, it would be an affirmation of Savin Hill's integrity as a cohesive, increasingly diverse community, and a bond linking those residents to whatever new church they attend down the street.

In his message to priests last December, Archbishop O'Malley told the story of his grandparents' house, built by his grandfather, where three generations had gathered for "Sunday dinners, birthdays, Christmases and Thanksgivings, baptisms and wakes." After his grandfather died, the family realized that the time had come to sell the house. It was not easy. "But today the needs of our family are different and those needs required us to sell the homestead," O'Malley explained. "To do otherwise would not have been responsible."

Although O'Malley did not elaborate, it is likely that his family made the decision themselves. And even if events took that decision out of their hands, the children and grandchildren surely held onto the bedroom set, a bureau, a couch, some chairs, and a dining room table, around which they continue to build their lives.

NOTES: Gerald Gamm, associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester, is the author of "Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed."