It’s exciting to build new things like churches. The difficulty comes with having to dismantle them, as many Catholics across the country have had to do.
This summer it happened to my hometown parish, St. Conrad’s, located in Melvindale, a small town outside of Detroit. Despite all efforts, the 210 families could no longer keep the parish going.
St. Conrad’s was one of 16 parishes slated to close in the Archdiocese of Detroit, according to a Spring 2006 strategic plan, which reduced the total number of parishes from 306 to 290. The last plan occurred in 1989 when 30 parishes were closed.
At its peak St. Conrad’s had over 400 families, however, the past few years have seen a decline in numbers because parishioners have died, found a new job, or moved to a new home in the suburbs. For the past three years the parish has had a part-time pastor, which means that the parishioners have pretty much run the parish.
What happened to St. Conrad’s reflects a national trend of demographic shifting, financial difficulties, and the priest shortage. So after 42 years as a faith community, St. Conrad’s held its final Mass.
Actually, I wasn’t going to go to the Mass. After seeing my elementary and middle schools and a college where I worked closed and demolished, I didn’t think I could take another “burial” of an institution that had been a vital part of my life. At the last minute, however, I changed my mind and went. And I’m glad I did because it got me thinking about the significance of closing a parish and its relationship to the changes going on in our world today.
St. Conrad’s meant a lot to me. One day, at a time during my greatest need, I turned to this church and kneeled on the hard, tiled floor praying for deliverance. A couple years later God answered my prayer: I became a Catholic and later joined a religious order, which launched my lifelong career in the human service professions. My sister converted to Catholicism at St. Conrad’s, too, and later was married there. My father never became a Catholic but he was married at the parish and eventually he attended weekly Masses, Bible study classes, and participated in various Christian service programs. The parish had provided him with purpose and friendship.
It may sound corny and trite but when you must let go of something precious, you suddenly realize its place in your life. At this last sad but jubilant Mass, parishioners—past and present—had an opportunity to honor the place St. Conrad’s held in their lives. What I also discovered was that even though I hadn’t been a member of the parish since 1975, I was still quite attached to it.
Attachment to a parish has an uncanny effect. A parish represents something bigger than you are, it has a purpose greater than your own ambitions, and it reaches more people than you could ever possibly touch. It also has an enduring presence, which produces fond memories that make you a part of the parish and the parish a part of you. When you lose your parish, it is like losing a limb!
This enduring presence is easy to take for granted because you believe that your parish will always be there for you. And although you can change parishes, you cannot always replace a faith community as you would a material possession that is lost or worn out.
The families who struggled to keep St. Conrad’s going felt a deep commitment to each other as neighbors and friends in a particular place. They knew they had something special and they didn’t want to change it. However, sometimes change happens to us as circumstances create an untenable situation. In losing their parish, the parishioners at St. Conrad’s had to witness yet another painful change.
For many parishioners this latest change was difficult. Some of them went through the Depression and World War II. Some sent their kids to Vietnam or Iraq. They saw the rise and fall of Detroit, the great industrial capital of the world. Most all of them went through the Vatican II changes.
In truth, the parishioners have been witnessing the dismantling of old structures, which is happening everywhere. It happened in New Orleans when the infrastructure could not protect the city from a devastating hurricane and in Minnesota when an interstate freeway bridge suddenly collapsed. It happened in New York City and Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when terrorists attacked the grand symbols of American economic and military might. It is happening now in California where drought has made the forest so dry that there are now 1,000 fires burning and in Alaska where the permafrost is melting and threatening people’s towns and way of life.
The parishioners’ faith has told them that as human beings we are forever challenged to cope with change and that we must differentiate between changing what we can and accepting that which we cannot change.
Saying good-bye to the parish through the Mass was an excellent way of honoring the life and ministry their small faith community had fostered these past 42 years. I have to believe that God’s grace will carry St. Conrad’s parishioners—and all of us experiencing these traumatic changes—into a new and vital future.