Is It All About the Buildings?

Sacred Heart Church, the Roman Catholic church in Hallowell, just around the corner from Old South, is likely to close soon, probably at the end of next month. It’s really no surprise. Everyone in town seemed to be aware that the Diocese had promised to keep it open only as long as the church’s aging priest could serve the church. But Father George passed away last month.

And now, there’s a growing movement afoot for the people of the parish, and the small city of Hallowell, to organize themselves to try to save it—despite the fact that the number of active members is small and the campus is large. And, it’s only a couple of miles to the next closest Roman Catholic Church, in Augusta.

This story is not new in Central Maine, where the population is aging and most communities are not growing and the percentage of population that self-identifies as Christian is stunningly low. Churches close. And the people who love them try to save them—even those who don’t attend.

Since hearing about this most recent of likely church closures, I’ve been thinking a lot about church buildings, and my own attachment to the church buildings of my life. Maybe I’m just completely lacking the sentimental or church loyalty gene, but I just can’t imagine committing myself to trying to save a church that is destined to close.

Take the church of my childhood. The church that I grew up in, in suburban Boston, was large and I remember knowing every corner. As an extremely active church youth (youth group, committee member, Sunday School teacher), I spent part of several days of most weeks at my church. Especially in youth group, where our favorite game was Sardines, I came to know the church building intimately. I even remember the time when we convinced the youth group leader to let us into the church office, where all of the keys to the various parts of the church were kept. One of my friends knew exactly what he was looking for—the keys to the tower and the church belfry. We unlocked the door to the tower on that Sunday evening, and climbed up to the controls for the bell and managed to ring the bell before the youth group leader knew what was happening. We waited breathlessly for an angry visit from the church pastor, who surely must have heard the bell ringing when it should not have been ringing. But, alas, he never showed up.

Yet, these memories don’t translate into a feeling of devotion so strong that if I discovered that that church was slated for closure that I would set about trying to save it. In fact, spending some time thinking about this issue reminds me that what I loved about that church really wasn’t the building at all. Grand as it was, my warm memories are for the people who were that church for me. If that building were to disappear, my memories wouldn’t go away. And, more than that, the reality of that building doesn’t make my memories any more precious.

Sure, I would be sad, very sad, if I were told that the church of my childhood and youth had arrived at its sunset. But, I still can’t imagine experiencing the kind of feeling that would motivate me to try to alter its path.

Church people ought to reflect on their relationship with the building in which they gather, or once gathered. It is especially important that church people consider the degree to which they cast the building as an idol. If the church means anything to us at all, in a religious and spiritual way, we should know that we must not worship the building that has been erected for the practice of our faith. It’s not Christian.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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