Closed Doors, Open Faith

A yellow ribbon hangs from the doors of closed parish in Cleveland. (CNS photo/William Rieter)
A yellow ribbon hangs from the doors of closed parish in Cleveland. (CNS photo/William Rieter)
The recent news of parish closings and mergers in the Archdiocese of New York, one of the United States’ largest Catholic populations, reminds me of when I was facing the same closed doors.

During the “finale” of masses at my parish, St. James & St. Gerard’s in the Diocese of Buffalo, I remember sitting in the pew, watching the altar get blurry as tears were forming in my eyes. Even with the painful knowledge that the doors of my spiritual home were closing, in my memories there is a distinct sense of being surrounded by goodness.

I was encircled by a great community of people, and we all had history together. We felt like one body in Christ. The woman who said, “Peace be with you,” was a woman who sang in the choir with my grandmother. There was the man who knew my family in its early stages, when I was only a baby in my parents’ arms. My parish was the place I learned about a beautiful closeness and a sense of home. However, it was difficult to reconcile that the Catholic identity that was intimately part of who I am was also the cause of the pain tearing at my heart.

While we were all singing the folk music psalms we instinctively knew, and holding hands with communal affection during the Our Father, I remember clearly thinking, “Why couldn’t this closing have waited one more year?” I wanted one more year because I was beginning high school during “The Journey with Faith and Grace,” as our bishop called it, and I longed to confirm my Catholic faith in the parish where that faith was born.

However, my Confirmation would be completed in a foreign land. My spiritual roots were being transplanted, and they did not like where our parish was told to “merge.” The soil wasn’t right. My family and I became Catholic nomads as our community scattered throughout the diocese. We slowly settled down at St. Joseph’s, a church geographically close to us. In the beginning, it felt like there was so much missing — and at first there was. Growing up in a small parish, I was accustomed to being one of the go-to altar servers and helping to organize community events, like potlucks. So, I decided if I was going to be confirmed at St. Joseph’s rather than my childhood parish, I was going to become just as involved in the church community as I ever was.

Quickly, I became a leader in the youth group, and I moved up in the ranks from altar server to Eucharistic minister and lector. I could build a history with this new community. St. Joseph’s became my new Catholic home, in part, because I gave it time and I gave it myself. In return, a sense of belonging and blessedness was restored. This fiery desire for community helped me be assertive and create a sense of community for myself.

When I eventually left home for college, I had to find a new church home again. This was a less tragic case of Catholic relocation, but once again, I craved being part of a parish — not just attending church. At first it may have taken my fellow parishioners by surprise that this unfamiliar college student was sitting with them at Mass and taking their hands during the Our Father. I was soon a Eucharistic minister and a part of the youth ministry team.

After a church closing or merger, it is certainly possible to feel at home again. The church building and surroundings will be different. The people will be different. But in the end, we are growing in the Catholic faith together, aspiring to do the same work as the Son of our ever-loving God. While I still miss St. James & St. Gerard’s, I know that I can feel at home in a new parish by simply getting involved. You too can start or re-start in a new parish when you decide to invest yourself in that new place.