by Mark Kohan
When I started working for the Polish American Journal’s parent company in
1982, one of my jobs was the mailing of promotional letters to potential subscribers and advertisers. At that time, journalist and political activist Stan Franczyk had mail lists in every category imaginable.
The list of Polish American parishes had over 800 names and addresses on it.
Thirty-five years later, we down to roughly 125 identifiable Polish American
parishes, and more closings and/or mergers are on the slate.
For Roman Catholics, the numbers get scarier when you consider the amount of
Italian, Irish, German, Ukrainian, and other early 20th Century immigrant churches that have closed.
The reasons are many: Some blame liberal education, and the secularization of the
younger population. Others blame technology. Favorable socioeconomic conditions lowers attendance. Unfavorable church-related publicity does not help.
This is true in Europe, too, where once-great churches, shuttered, are being turned
into skateboard parks, gymnastic training arenas, museums, supermarkets, gyms, and even bars.
In American Polonia, several of our ancestral parishes or parts of their properties
have been converted to other uses. The convent at St. Stanislaus Kostka in Fells Point, Maryland, now houses Mother Seton Academy. (The remainder of the property is, to date, vacant.) The social hall of St.
Barbara’s parish Lackawanna, N.Y. is now a Food Pantry & Outreach Center for Catholic Charities (the church was torn down by the Diocese). The Chicago Academy of Music is under contract with
the Archdiocese of Chicago to purchase St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church in Pilsen.
Some think this type of repurposing is sacrilegious. Others would rather see their
parishes razed than be used give quarter to other faiths.
So what do we do?
First and foremost, if your parish is still viable, and placed on a list for
closure, fight to keep it open. Write letters. Hold protests. Get in your bishop’s face.
Ideally, when all resources are exhausted, and the inevitable is at hand, the
parish, not the Diocese, should be in charge of the dissolution of its assets, with special consideration of its ancestral roots. Polonia’s parishes were built largely by donations. Therefore, heirs
(familial or parochial) should be the ones who decide what happens to the buildings and grounds.
But Canon Law says the property belongs to the Diocese, and the fate of buildings
and land is in its hands.
It is here where we have to ask ourselves: what is best way to remember our
ancestors’ contributions? Do we walk away and watch as it — most often disrespectfully — returns to dust, or do we try to preserve for others to use?
As painful as it may be, the European model — a concerted effort of
parishioners, diocese, city planners, and investors — is the best way to save what remains. With so few Polish churches left, and so many destroyed since the closings began over two decades ago, we must
work to ensure Polonia’s contributions to America’s spirituality, architecture, and community is not forgotten.
No, I am not comfortable with someone twerking on the spot where
my mom was baptized, but that — I dare say — is probably the worst it would possibly get. At that point, the church has been desacralized, so it is out of our hands, regardless of the
property’s repurpose. If we get involved, we can push for reuse plans that do not debase or disrespect the building’s history. But we have to first get involved.