Posted earlier about St. John Cantius’ in Chicago, how a devotion to the liturgy and religious arts helped save a beautiful church. This weekend, was in Baltimore with my boys, the older of whom was in a fencing tournament there, and so got to visit St. Alphonsus’, “Where Saints have Prayed”, a few blocks from the convention center. These two buildings have set me to speculating on what we can do to save and use all the beautiful churches in depopulated (and de-monied) older urban centers.
Like St. John Cantius’, this lovely church was built by immigrants in the 1800’s – Poles in Chicago, Germans here in Baltimore. St. Alphonsus’ is considerably older, having been begun in 1845 – St. John’s was begun in 1893. Also, both are homes to the Extraordinary Form liturgy. Both have suffered from urban flight.
Both churches offer Mass in both Latin and English, in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. Attended 2 Ordinary and one Extraordinary Masses at St. Alphonsus’ this past week.
St. Alphonsus’ boasts one saint – St. John Neumann – and one beata – Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos – among its pastors. Pretty darn cool, and does add to the prayerful vibe of the place. Also, there’s a shrine chapel with various devotional statues, including one of the Infant of Prague, which was nice to see. (I told my boys that the prayer we add to our table blessing – “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; Divine Infant Jesus bless us” – came to them from me through their grandmother who got it from her mother, who, like St. John Neumann, was Czech – Czechs have a great devotion to the Infant of Prague.)
The sad difference is that while St. John Cantius’ has been renewed as a regional center of art and liturgy and Catholic education (they have classes in Latin, Greek and Hebrew!), St. Alphonsus’ has not gone that route, and instead is seeing regular mass attendance slowly dry up, until only 300 people attend mass there in a given week.*
While I didn’t get to attend Mass at St. John Cantius’, and so didn’t get to see first hand, they have numerous choirs and an dedicated religious order (the Cannons Regular of St. John Cantius) to make sure the liturgy is executed beautifully and fully, no matter which rite they use. St Alphonsus’ is very well staffed considering the situation, with two elderly priests, a deacon and a sacristan. Music on Sunday was a cantor and organist. Nothing wrong with that, but hardly a magnet.
Got to speak with the pastor for a couple moments, a kind elderly Monsignor, and he said that saving the church building is not possible – for men. God must save it. Let us pray He does so.
So, could St. Alphonsus’ be saved as St. John Cantius’ has been saved? Could it become a regional liturgical and sacred art center, drawing people (and funds) from the larger surrounding area? Not that the people involved are asking, it’s just that that’s a model that has worked at least once – at St. John Cantius’. Here’s the problem, from a human point of view: you can only have so many regional liturgy centers. Such centers would, it seems to me, by nature cluster around Cathedrals, or, at the very least, around particularly suitable and historic buildings.
St. Alphonsus’ is literally 2 blocks from the very beautiful Baltimore Basilica, truly an architectural masterpiece and an historically important building. Now, I loved St. Alphonsus’, it’s much prettier and more suitable for Sacred Liturgy than 95% of Catholic churches in America, and I’d love for it to be my parish church, but – it’s not an architectural masterpiece, nor is it historically important in itself. Unfortunately, older cities all across the East were full of beautiful churches built by Poles, Germans, Irish and so forth that are all but abandoned as Catholics fled the inner cities. We hear again and again tragic stories of diocese having to make difficult choices and closing and even demolishing such churches.
What makes St. Alphonsus special enough to be spared such a fate? I think we can eliminate the ‘regional liturgical and sacred art center’ idea, unless somehow the building could be preserved to serve as an adjunct venue to the Basilica, the logical choice for such a center. And it is special in having had a saint and a blessed among its pastors – that’s the point being emphasized by the people trying to save it now.
The architecture is said to inspired by St. Stephen’s in Vienna. If that is so, the inspiration didn’t go too far. The vaulting, to my eye the building’s best feature artistically, can be said to be like that in St. Stephen’s, but that’s about it. Maybe with a couple of million dollars of restoration, and maybe a rethinking of some of the dark color choices on the columns and walls, St. Alphonsus’ could be considerably more lovely – but it’s not in the Basilica’s league, and never will be.
The one real hope, the miracle the Lord could work with us as His tools: Evangelization. While the population has declined precipitously, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people there. And they are just the sort of rag-tag despised people Jesus would have hung out with – the poor, the homeless, the yuppies.
* That’s what the website says. We attended a couple 12:10 Masses during the week – one of 2 daily masses – with about 30 – 40 people each, which would suggest more than 300 over a week including Sunday, but yes, small attendance.