In one episode of HBO’s series The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano takes his teenage son Anthony Jr. (“AJ”) to what is apparently inner-city Newark, New Jersey to show him that when the Italians came to New Jersey, one of the first things they did was build a beautiful church with their own hands, and very limited resources.
While Tony walks and talks about the beauty of the church, and his son is dutifully bored, Tony becomes more and more frustrated that A.J. is not impressed with this stunning church built by their forebears. After nearly losing his temper—in the church—with Anthony Jr., the latter responds laconically, “If it’s such an important church why don’t we come here for Mass?”
These fictional Italian Americans aren’t the only ones who need to answer this question (or at the very least ask it).
The truth is, almost all of the most beautiful churches in America—and here I’m speaking generally of parish churches, not abbeys, not shrines, not basilicas—reside in the poorer parts of town. The reason for this is somewhat obvious, even if it is hard to grasp by today’s standards: when immigrants came here, generally from Europe, one of the first things they did was build a church—their church—to worship in. This was generally a temporary space while a bigger, grander place of worship was under construction.
In the Diocese of Buffalo, where I grew up, but also in Brooklyn—“The Borough of Churches”—where I lived for a number of years, your parish church was part of your identity. Since most immigrants didn’t own a car, and tended to live in urban areas surrounded by their own kind, the local parish church tended to be a nationalistic affair within walking distance.
For example: in the Diocese of Buffalo, Niagara Falls had St. Joseph’s Church (Italian, which was just down the street from my great-grandparents' bakery and grocery store), while less than two miles away was the Franco-English St. George’s, the Polish Holy Trinity parish, the self-explanatory Our Lady of Lebanon, and the City’s mother-church (founded by St. John Neumann), St. Mary of the Cataract. The remarkable thing about these parishes—aside from the fact that one could walk to all of them within a half-hour or so—is how well-built and beautiful they were. And now, save for St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s, they are now all closed.
In one of those ironical turns that also makes one scratch one’s head: of the fifteen churches in Niagara Falls, the few that were kept open are the less beautiful ones, the newer buildings—which, to absolutely no one’s surprise tend not to be in ghettos but in suburbs.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in sociology or urban planning to figure out that once immigrant groups—like the fictive Sopranos—could move out of the inner city and out into the suburbs, they did so, thus leaving behind a testimony in stone and stained-glass of what their ancestors built: gorgeous, European-style churches. In fact, in Brooklyn it is still not uncommon to hear older Brooklynites still refer to where they grew up by referencing their parish—and not their neighborhood or street address.
The odd—and sad—thing is that none of these immigrant-groups seemed to have gotten a 2.0 suburban Church that equaled (let alone surpassed) the original—which in all likelihood was shuttered, or twinned, or clustered. It is a continuing irony that, in theory at least, the groups in question now had the disposable income to build an even greater, larger, and more beautiful edifice than had their cash-strapped great-grandparents. Maybe this has happened somewhere—but nowhere that I know of. At best, the churches in the suburbs have bigger parking lots.
In a couple of cases—especially here on the east coast—some cities are stuck with cathedrals that, like it or not, are in the absolute worst part of town. In New Jersey alone Newark’s Sacred Heart and Paterson’s St. John the Baptist are in areas you wouldn’t want to be at nightfall. Or even at noon. (New York City, on the other hand, put new St. Patrick’s Cathedral squarely in Midtown, right next to Saks Fifth Avenue and just down the street from Rockefeller Center).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the bishop and his vicar general aware of the poverty that afflicts so many Americans even in this time when we are being told that things are “looking up” (I take this to mean “Looking up to Heaven for Divine Intervention in this Economy”). And what good is a parish—let alone a cathedral—if it is set apart in some suburb where the poor cannot reach it, out where the public transportation doesn’t run?
“The poor you will always have with you” saith Our Lord. This used to depress me. It made me wonder what was the point of trying to solve the intractable problem of poverty if Jesus Himself was stating the problem was insoluble. But on the other hand it is the challenge that Jesus is giving us: the Church’s preferential option for the poor should be our option as well.
A wise man once wrote that Catholics identify more with their parish than with their diocese (who do you know who actually says, “I’m a member of the Diocese of ___________!” instead of “We belong to St. Paul’s Church in Prospect Park.”) But there’s room and reason for both. For ill our parishes tend to keep our minds, literally, on things parochial—and for better, thinking of our diocese may help us see—by visiting that downtown cathedral—those whom Holy Mother Church has a preferential option for.
And a visit to that Cathedral also gives us a chance to visit what is probably a startlingly beautiful church—even if it is now located in a ghetto.