A NEW VOCATION FOR CHURCH PROPERTIES IN THE POSTMODERN ERA: SECULAR DECONSTRUCTION OF SANCTIFIED AND SACRED SPACE, OR A NEW HYBRIDIZIED COMPROMISE BETWEEN THE SACRED SPACES OF YORE AND THE POSTMODERN GLITZ AND GLARE OF VEGAS?
I’ve been meaning to write this article for several months now. I first got the inspiration for it a while back and scribbled out the main idea for it on a scrap of paper and then left it on my computer desk and kept coming back to it every few weeks when I’d inevitably try and whittle down the pile of scraps of paper and post-it notes on my computer desk regarding things I’d jotted down to remind myself of, phone numbers of people to call back, organizations to look up on the computer or in books to do research on for future articles and so forth.
But somehow, it wasn’t until I went on vacation to Québec City and Montréal, which were basically the original inspiration for this piece in the first place, that I’ve finally found the time and energy to jot down what I’ve been meaning to say about all this.
Basically, I was sitting down this morning at St. Patrick’s Rectory in Québec City, visiting my old haunts, and had pulled out a copy of Herman Dooyeweard’s ‘In the Twilight of Western Thought’, which is one of my former Pastor’s typical ‘critical analysis’ type of books about the postmodern period of Philosophy and Theology and managed to get through the introduction and to page six before my caffeine fix gave out and my ability to endure the complex metaphysical and arcane verbiage ran out and I took a break and went and looked out the back window at the back yard of the Rectory and saw the once pristine patio pavers had become all grown over with weeds and grass, and the pavers had grown all uneven from frost heaving and the settling of the earth.
This had been like this for some years even before I left for Ontario and I remembered that in the years before my departure, we’d tried to have a parish picnic in the yard and to invite the folks to enjoy the nice weather out there and to have some non-alcoholic punch out on the patio and had expended considerable effort at getting tables and a punch bowl brought up the back stairwell off the parish hall out into the yard, which was no mean feat, considering how little those back stairs were used and how dirty and cluttered they were, and how little used was the back yard, we were really going out on a limb to bring the parishioners outdoors to enjoy some of Mother Nature’s sunshine.
Well, what do you know, one elderly parishioner tripped over an uneven paving stone and fell and broke some of her dental work and we ended up being on the hook for it. So that was the end that, no more parties out in the yard!!!
As I gazed out into the yard this cool, breezy late August morning, I felt that this place was somewhat in the twilight of its existence. The current Church building had only been in existence for some 26-27 years after we demolished the old one and downsized, but in that time, we’d barely used the back yard, and a long series of not always in-residence Pastors, who came to minister to us in the wake of the pull out of the Redemptorists in 1999, basically let the place go and it rapidly went downhill from a physical and social and spiritual viewpoint.
We still celebrate Mass here daily and on weekends, we still have a choir, but it’s thinning out year after year. This brings me to the current policy of the Diocese of Québec called the ‘Community of Communities’, which is basically a form of municipal amalgamation, except for parishes. Since parishes in our Diocese are dwindling in numbers ever so inexorably and the Bishop finds himself with literally tens of millions if not more of real estate in his hands, all being eyed by ambitious developers who can’t wait to swoop in, the Diocese is attempting to convince and persuade its faithful to get together and combine their resources from an administrative and spiritual viewpoint before a solution is effectively imposed upon them from on high.
This Community of Communities is trying to get as many as four or more parishes to combine their administrations and buildings and services into one unit and to close down many little-used facilities and to likely sell them off to be either converted or demolished and have other things of a similar or quasi-spiritual nature built instead.
This is where it gets tricky, and interesting. I don’t think the Diocese will likely sell to a developer who will put up a stripper bar or brothel type of biker bar, or at least we certainly hope not. So what types of places are being proposed to replace these places of sacred worship that have long held a special sacred place on both the physical and spiritual landscape in our society?
It would appear that several options seem to be quite prevalent. One option which comes to mind right away and which is the most common are condominiums and/or housing for the elderly. It would seem that as the aging cohort of pre baby boom era seniors enter their final twilight years and they cash in their chips after a mostly long and fruitful life of labour and love in this country, having often come from elsewhere after the war to ‘make good’ on these shores, that they want to ‘go in style’ and to have all of the amenities in their final years which they’ve grown accustomed to in this land of plenty and not have to endure any sort of poverty or deprivation like either their ancestors here at home or back in the old country.
So, if a Church gets demolished for them to be able to live that way, well, OK, they can still go to services in the multipurpose room at their seniors condo and be fully served there, can’t they? Works for me! So, in a way, nothing is sacred, but in another way everything is, in that they continue to worship the God of their understanding in the manner which suits their circumstances.
Another outcome is for Churches to be converted into condos or low cost public housing units as the notion of ‘heritage’ continues to grow and our desire to ‘conserve built heritage’ grows by leaps and bounds, even as our tendency to want to actually practice conventional organized Roman Catholicism within the walls of these buildings from the point of view of the younger generation is practically non-existent.
So I’ve seen a lot of old late 19th and early 20th century Churches being converted into swank condo projects for very gentrified sybaritic urbanites who want to appropriate for themselves the trappings of a sacred space without having to actually practice the discipline of having to exercise its tenets in day to day existence, which is quite common of the postmodern sybaritic, gentrified and cultured urbanite, what with their penchant for fine food and wine, art, books, music, theatre and all things ‘cultured.’
The other outcome, even more amusing if not slightly ironic, is the tendency for developers to swoop in on a religious community or parish and propose a sort of quasi-‘spiritual’/’new age’/’health and wellness-spa type of proto-eastern-touchy-feely-feel good kind of hotel/convention centre/get away from it all/sanatorium where you can pamper yourself where the future/former convent of the nuns will be used to welcome yet more spoiled and prosperous sybaritic, gentrified urbanites and suburbanites who want some sort of ‘get away from it all’ weekend of a ‘quasi-spiritual’/’hedonistic/ and self-indulgent nature but don’t want to go to a Catholic monastery and pray in silent Spartan conditions, but also don’t want to go to Vegas-like places and be exposed to all sorts of Casino and prostitution types of environments.
So this would be a good middle of the road solution for them, where they can recharge their batteries in a verdant natural environment without the dogmatic presence of the Church to ‘dictate’ how they are to behave or not but without the secular distractions of the flesh such as are to be found in a place such as Vegas.
So yet again, secular and profane meet up at the junction of sanctified and sacred, giving the postmodern creature of creation and of the Creator something they can live with. Never thought that meditating on Herman Dooyeweard and looking out the back window of my old Rectory would lead me to such wanderings of the Spirit. Well, maybe it is the Twilight of Western Thought, but I feel like I’m rarin’ to go! Let’s see what the morning brings! God Bless. Amen.