A Roman Catholic church in Waterville, Maine (where I live) was torn down recently. It had been closed as a church several years ago and then put up for sale. Although some suitors came along to consider buying the building and converting it for an alternative use, no one ended up purchasing the property. The Diocese eventually decided to tear it down in order to build senior housing on the site.
Before the building was torn down, a campaign emerged and a petition was drawn up, to try to convince the Diocese to change its mind. I have no idea how many people signed the petition, but it was obviously not successful. The church building is now gone.
What was especially interesting in the campaign to save the building was that it was started and encouraged by a local businessman who admitted in his pleas that he no longer attends church. For me, this is both sad and pathetic.
I understand that church buildings hold important and valued memories for people. Weddings, baptisms, confirmations, funerals—these are among the most emotional moments in our lives. Yet, it is crystal clear that these large sanctuaries cannot be preserved simply for the occasional big moment in the lives of the people who live in the area.
Waterville was once a place where many Roman Catholics lived, many of them coming from Canada to live and to work in the area mills (paper and textiles). At one point, fourteen priests served Waterville. But, now the mills are closed and the community is smaller than it once was. And, like other communities, church attendance among those who remain has declined significantly. There are now only three priests who serve the Waterville churches, and one of them is part-time.
The businessman who started the campaign to save St. Francis church referred to the episode as a “wake up call.” Did he “wake up” and begin to attend church again on a regular basis? I doubt it.
Churches are not sustained by attendance at “big” events in life. Churches are sustained by the regular attendance and participation of people week after week. And, I’m not just talking about the sustaining power of money in the offering plates.
If the “big” moments really mean something when they take place in a church, then the smaller moments must be acknowledged and celebrated as well. “Preservation” of church buildings is simply not enough. For without the faithful inside, the building is, literally, an empty shell. And, empty shells are, in the end, really not worth saving.