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.
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.
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.