What Does It Mean To Lose Your Church?

 

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland is closing 52 churches and merging them into clusters. One of those churches is mine, Historic St. Peter in downtown Cleveland. It has one priest, financial solvency, a tutoring program at a Cleveland elementary school, volunteer activities at nearby homeless shelters, and a dedicated congregation of about 600. It’s healthy, but it’s closing.

Technically, St. Peter and the Shrine of the Conversion of St. Paul at 40th and Euclid are merging with St. Johns Cathedral downtown. The vast majority of people who attend St. Peter (and St. Paul) don’t live in the area. St. Peter is at 17th and Superior. It’s not a residential neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination. Unlike most churches, people attend St. Peter out of choice, not out of obligation to someone else or geographic coincidence or inertia. I believe the farthest someone travels to attend is from Ashtabula County. I have no idea how many churches she passes by to get to the one where she feels at home.

I was raised Roman Catholic and believed unquestioningly until I was 14 and went to a mass at which the priest spoke in his homily of the “inferior” religion of the Native Americans. That disrespect for another belief system didn’t sit well with me, and I stopped going. At various times in my life, I tried other Catholic churches. The service always left me cold. Sitting in rows of pews far away from the altar made me feel like a disengaged observer. The priests’ homilies would ramble on for a while, and I would daydream or look at the paintings or stained glass windows or count the lights or the patterns on the ceiling or people watch. It seemed that no one sang but the choir, my mother, and some little old ladies who all seemed to be high-pitched sopranos. When I’d go to communion, the wafer was flat, dry, and obviously machine processed. It just didn’t seem like the best way to talk to God.

Thus I became a failed/recovering/lapsed Catholic–choose your term. There are a lot of us out there. In my twenties, I attended Unitarian services for a time and, later, Quaker meetings, but still didn’t find a community that felt right for me. My mother suggested I go to St. Peter, as did the late Anthony Marrotta, whom I knew through working in local theater (he did hair). He always told me he’d get me to St. Peter Church, and he finally did. Sadly, it was for his funeral. Then I went with my mother. Then I went on my own. I’ve been a parishioner on and off for eight years. This church, this congregation is the only reason I returned to the Catholic church.

There were so many things that made St. Peter different and welcoming to someone who felt divorced from the church at large. There were no pews; instead you sat on chairs arranged in a horseshoe. You had an immediate physical connection not only to the people sitting on either side of you but to the entire congregation. You weren’t separated by immovable fences (i.e., pews). The pastor, Father Marrone, sat on a chair with the congregation–he was with and of his people. I never daydreamed during mass at St. Peter, because his homilies were consistently thought-provoking, insightful, and relevant. When he went up to the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist (the second half of the Mass where the bread and wine are blessed and, if you believe, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus), the entire congregation would gather around the altar. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I was a participant in the service, connected somehow to the mystery of faith. The communion at St. Peter wasn’t the dry little wafer I had grown up with. It was a tiny piece of bread torn from one large loaf that had been baked by a person instead of being stamped by a machine. The words in the liturgy say, “One bread, one body,” and this actually was.

Did I mention the music? Oh, the music. The St. Peter choir made you stop and listen. There were only 18 or 20 voices, doing four or six or eight-part harmony that could move you to tears with its beauty. Everybody in the congregation sang. And they sang as though they were each genuinely trying to worship and connect with whatever entity it is they call God.

There was an inclusiveness and sense of grace at St. Peter that was renewing. That inclusiveness was demonstrated in dozens of ways: gay couples and families being included in the parish directory, a musical adaptation of the 23rd psalm that used the female pronoun throughout, male and female acolytes (instead of altar boys) of all ages, Father Marrone making sure to give communion to the infirm or wheelchair-bound before anyone else. There were so many moments that could make your heart swell and your soul sing.

A funny thing happened to me when I went to mass at St. Peter–I became reverent, spiritually focused on a way I had never been before. You could see the same thing in the people around you. I can honestly say that I never went to a service there where I didn’t feel somehow altered for the better.

This is what the people who had found a spiritual home at St. Peter are losing. By the time you read this, St. Peter Church will have held its last service, fittingly on Easter Sunday, a time of rebirth.

Parish leaders have created a nonprofit called the Community of St. Peter as a way of continuing the church’s volunteer activities and to find some way to worship together. How this new community will function and pray together seems to be a work in progress. The Bishop sent everyone in the parish a letter saying (in part) that he was concerned for our salvation and would “not approve of a priest celebrating the sacraments in any space other than an approved site within the Diocese.” I don’t think the point of the new community is to create an alternate church; it is to create a space where the congregation can meet together and pray. For me, that doesn’t need to be a Catholic mass.

People say over and over that a church is not the building but the people. I agree. Here’s the thing: it may be happenstance that the place where I felt most spiritually at home was a Catholic church. Losing my church is making me reassess what I believe. I’m not sure if I’m still a Catholic (and by whose definition). Part of me wonders why, if the Bishop is so concerned about my salvation, he is taking away a unique space within his church that welcomed people who perhaps did not fit into the mainstream church? He is losing us. I think he has lost me.

When Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Petrone is not writing an arts or culture article for Cool Cleveland, she writes fiction. Her first novel, A Body at Rest, was published in early 2009 by Drinian Press. An excerpt from the novel and some of her published short fiction are available at http://www.SusanPetrone.com.

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15 Responses to “What Does It Mean To Lose Your Church?”

  1. Karin Wishner

    Susan,
    You had the words to express a lot of what I’ve been feeling. Thank you. I’ve been at St. Peter’s for 16 years. I had given up on the church when I found St. Peter’s. It became my place of refuge and healing. It will continue to be my community.
    This process has caused me also to re-assess what I believe and where I belong. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I find myself still getting choked up talking about the closing. I got teary-eyed reading your article. I call myself a recovering catholic. I believe the core beliefs. I have learned so many wonderful lessons and been so inspired from the teachings of Fr. Marrone.
    I think we’re all wondering where the next steps will lead us.
    Again, thank you so much for writing the article.

  2. I was a parishioner of St. Peter’s. Thank you for your thoughtful and endearing treatment of the parish. It accurately captures what my (and I’m sure others) experience was there. The closing has been quite sad. My sincere best wished to Father Marrone and all parishioners of St. Peter’s.

  3. Ray Saviciunas

    Without minimizing your sadness and disappointment, I must ask that if you truly believe Catholic teaching and doctrine, how can you walk away from the Eucharist simply because your current favorite franchise location is shutting down? (I recovered my Faith doing work for a LifeTeen program at a BIG parish, and found my fellowship there. That honeymoon is over now, but faith-in-the-heart-wise I got what I needed there.) Also, why should the physical form of the bread be a deal-breaker compared to the larger issues the Church and spirituality in general address? Perhaps St. John’s has a ministry/service group that will speak to your heart. Try to be open, and keep praying. Wish you well.

  4. Stacey Lang

    wow. I wish I had known about the kind church st. pete’s was. then again, I think my heart would be hurting as much as yours with the closing.

  5. Patrick Montgomery

    Another salient point is that when the Catholic Church closes a church it contributes significantly to destabilizing the neighborhood. How do these least among us get to church? Do we abandon those who can not afford cars? Without a neighborhood church people feel disenfranchised. Church is a part of community. I was a Catholic but just cannot deal with choices that the Catholic Church makes. I often ask myself: what would Jesus Christ do? The answer is often not what the patriarchal church chooses.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I attended St. Peter’s several times during its last year, and found it very welcoming and inspiring. I did not understand the logic of closing St. Peter’s. I think it was a big mistake, and kind of a malicious one.

  7. Jack McGuane

    Starting in March 1978, through the eighties and into the nineties I had a “holy ground,” St Joseph Life Retreat Center, much like the one you have (had) at St. Peters. Later I acquired another “holy ground” at the retreat house in Youngstown, Sacred Heart Retreat Center. During those times I found I was acquiring a “State-of-Mind,” which was facilitated by the buildings but especially by the people and the anointed leaders, (the Father Marrones of my time.) But when it was all taken away and I needed to reassess, I discovered I still had my State-of-Mind. That can’t be taken away, it can only be lost if I abandon it.

    I’ve been asking God questions since I was old enough to think. God never answered one (I think that must be the answer.) The Bishops have plenty of answers but if we can’t hear them they will lose us and we will lose them. God never loses anybody, my State-of-Mind tells me this is so.

  8. All of these are wonderful reflections by people who have been touched either by St. Peter’s or some other Catholic Church. Yes, I agree. Catholicism , as any religion, is a state of mind. However, iti would have been wonderful to continue that state of mind by practicing it in one’s own church.

    Due to the lack of respect, teh lack of communication and the stonewall by the Bishop and teh Vatican, I have come to believe that a church which has a hierarchy suited solely for its own needs, should be evicted from the real church – the priests and parishioners .

  9. Elizabeth Gildone

    I have been so blessed to be a parishoner of St. Peter for over 15 years. On April 4th, I processed out of St. Peter’s for the last time with my fellow parishioners and many supportive visitors. We held candles and gloriously sang “Christ Be Our Light:”

    Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.
    Shine through the darkness.
    Christ, be our light!
    Shine in your church gathered today.

    Since that date, I have worshiped at a number of the Community of St. Peter gatherings. While no longer in our beloved church, the beauty and spirit of the community remain and will continue to do so as we make our way into the future. We have been made stronger by our shared experience and have discovered strength, sensitivity, and talent in our community that were not fully realized before our closing.

    A couple of weeks ago, I opted to attend mass at a large, suburban church. I was taken aback when the opening hymn began and it was “Christ Be Our Light.” Despite it being a very well-attended mass, I could barely hear anyone singing but myself. Then after communion I glanced over my shoulder and realized that the 8 – 10 pews behind me that previously were filled, were vacated with the exception of a handful of individuals. A lack of singing and leaving mass before it concluded was unheard of at St. Peter. We wanted and longed to be present. We were all part of the mass. I never wanted our masses to end. I was painfully reminded of what I had lost and so deeply saddened by what I realized was missing for a fair number of those around me. For some of us, living with this is simply unacceptable when we realize the gifts that we have been given through our experience at St. Peter.

    The answer to the question I have been asked by fellow Catholics, “Where will you go now? was made absolutely clear for me that day. I will choose the uncertainty of the future that comes with being a member of the Community of St. Peter over experiencing those emotions again and again.

  10. Kate Uhlir

    It was in 1984 that I came to the small, loving community of Catholics worshiping at Historic Saint Peter Church in downtown Cleveland. I loved the peace I found with this little group of worshipers. But the nine mile trip was a little long for me (with six young teenagers at home) so I returned to Gesu for Sunday Mass. Gesu was busy, a bit worldly, but good! Indeed! Gesu was good! However, years later when I returned from service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in St. Louis, I returned to Noon Mass at Gesu. I sat in the pew behind a family with a little boy who continually “rammed” his match-box car into a pile of cheerios. Gesuites strolled into church 15 minutes after Mass had begun. Many exited early and a group of girls chatted shamelessly during the entire Mass. I felt the event was disturbing after my JVC experience, so I felt I couldn’t return to Gesu. The following Sunday I rode downtown and walked into the elegantly refurbished Historic Saint Peter Church. I took a deep breath. Yes!!! There was the peace, beauty and simplicity I felt in 1984. I knew I found my earthly heaven! That was in 1994. I’ve tried to be “part of the fabric” of this wonderful community since. I participated in the funeral masses of several of our beloved dead and told Fr. Marrone I “wanted to go out the same way.” We sing loudly. We pray loudly. We embrace with great feeling. We are committed to each other!
    And I sobbed as I walked through our beloved church’s treasured oak doors for the last time.
    We give our time, our gifts, ourselves. And so we continue…

  11. Jack McGuane

    How sad that your holy ground has been taken away. How glorious that there is a “remnant” (maybe the whole Community) to carry on in the uncertain future. “Here’s to you and all like you”

    Legalism and stern warnings don’t hold much water these days. God’s love is refilling that leaky bucket and patching up the holes. We have been given a new adventure. “Here’s to us and all like us.”

  12. jenna messina

    i have heard so many stories from fellow catholics from parishes that have been closed or merged. and many of them are heartbreaking. but it is true that a church is not the building or the statues or the pews. those material things are not what makes up a spiritual community. if parishoners are not going to sing the hyms during the mass or choose to sit at the back of the church just to be present, that is how they individually choose to participant in the mass. and i would never assume i am the one to determine if their way of worshiping is correct or incorrect. i (a practicing catholic) had to attened a quite a number of services at a number of churches of various denominations before i found the one where i feel most “home”. and the journey of finding that new home was worth all the time it took. and i definitely learned quite a bit along the way. i hope that for all of the people losing their parish, they will seek out their new spiritual home as well. and i hope the same for you. any parish would be blessed to have you as part of their family. many prayers for you and all those at st. peters.

  13. Justin Harmony

    Once, when I was beginning a new phase of my life, a friend of mine told me with a pat on the back, “just remember, Justin, every kick in the butt is not a kick in the wrong direction.” How true for the Community of St. Peter! Having been a parishioner for over 10 years at St. Peter’s, I am not saddened by its closing, but excited, inspired, and empowered by the thrilling prospect of a new creation. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” 2Cor 5:17.

  14. Gail Hawley

    I, too, came to St. Peter’s at a time when I was discouraged by the poor liturgies at other parishes I attended. At the first mass I said “I’m joining this church and I’m joining the choir”. I sang in the choir for 10 years and found at St Peter’s a spiritually uplifting community, truth, and beauty. I left the cleveland area to move back to my hometown in Wisconsin 6 years ago, but i continued to return to St. Peter’s a couple of times each year for mass…I always considered it my spiritual “home”. I was there for all of Holy Week this year and the closing mass on Easter. I continue to grieve the loss of the building because it was part of the package for me. It also speaks to the sad state of our Catholic church that one of the FEW parishes that INVEST in their liturgies (time and effort) and that actually draws people BACK to the church is shut down by the hierarchy (who is clueless). Thanks, Susan for your article.

  15. John Russell

    I was a member of St. Peter for 10 years and agree with most of the above sentiments. It was a different kind of parish, with life, energy, dignity, inclusion, love and outstanding preaching and liturgy. When I moved to Indianapolis five years ago, I looked high and low for a new “St. Peter’s.” Alas, there wasn’t one here, just the boring, bland ho-hum mass where people went because they had to. After a few years of that, I decided I just could not go through the motions anymore. I had to find a new spiritual home that shared my values (love, respect, reason, inclusion, and where different paths were respected.) I eventually had to leave the Catholic Church to find them, and joined a Unitarian church. There, I also heard preaching about respect and full inclusion for women, gay people, and even people of other cultures and theologies. This felt right.

    When I returned home to visit friends in Cleveland, I also returned to St Peter to see a Catholic church that had gotten it right. Of course, I mourned when it closed. And now, I rejoice that the community has taken back the church from the abuses of the hierarchy and is worshiping despite the dictates and threats of the bishop. Way to go. You make me happy and proud to be a former member.

    I am so happy to see that the community of

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