Hearing the stories of “last rites” at Our Lady of Peace (NYC), a funeral on a sidewalk at Our Lady Queen of Angels (NYC), the court order to clear out Catholics who have carried out an 11-year vigil at St. Francis Cabrini Scituate, or the decimation of the oldest Black Catholic Church in Philadelphia (St. Peter Claver) will break your heart and leave you wondering why those in leadership would, en masse, restrict themselves to such a few debilitating options.
Cardinals and bishops, some more sensitive than others, justify the systematic merging and closing of parishes by emphasizing the demographic and cultural shifts. But the story of pain and grief suffered by Catholics who once journeyed together and, who now find their common faith life shattered, is a story largely untold.
Twenty nine years 29 years after St. Peter Claver in Philadelphia was officially suppressed, and a year after the building was locked up and put up for sale, 79-year old Barney Richardson still grieves.
As an 8-year old Mr. Richardson’s relatives brought him to the Church. Their patron saint was a Jesuit priest whose opposition to slavery and ministry to enslaved peoples in Columbia laid the foundation for the spirituality of the entire community and became a model of sainthood for the entire Church.
Recalling the many days he prayed in front of a shrine to the Virgin Mary, Mr. Richardson recalled, “Just imagine all the prayers that went to this shrine. You can feel the holiness.” Others described St. Peter Claver parish as “sacred ground” where the spirituality formed a truly evangelizing community.
“In 1892 Black people came here to find Jesus,” said the Rev. Stephen D. Thorne. Thorne, the former director of the Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics and the current pastor of the Martin de Porres Church in North Philadelphia, said, “It was not just the priests or the religious who were evangelizing. All evangelized from here.”
While Archdiocesan officials say the Church is being sold now because of a sharp decline in attendance, Barney Richardson points out that the declining membership was inevitable after the church was suppressed in 1986. Further, while the Archdiocese has stated that the “net proceeds from any possible sale will be designated for the sole purpose of supporting ongoing ministry to the black Catholic community,” Mr. Richardson dismisses their promises saying, “How can you even have an office of black Catholics when you’re selling the mother church of black Catholics?”
As parishes are merged and closed across the United States, there are costs in terms of human relationships, spirituality and sacramental life. It is a tragedy when those charged to pastor show more loyalty to institutional mindsets than to God and to God’s people.