The iconic twin spires of St. Stephen's
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 15, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Contextual Note: In March 2008, the Catholic Arch Diocese of Johnstown, PA announced the imminent closure of four parishes in the historic Cambria City section of Johnstown.
This was written in response to the announcement.
The Allegheny region is not an area prone to earthquakes, but the recent announcement of the Arch Diocese certainly carried the same impact. Four churches in Johnstown’s most iconic neighborhood, Cambria City, are due to be closed. Although in close proximity, the churches served their parishes for over 100 years, each one a reflection of Cambria City’s rich ethnic past. According to the “Explore PA History” website, as people streamed into the area from Europe to work in the coal mines and steel mills, parishes were established representing a variety of ethnic groups. Among them was the Irish (St. Columba’s), Hungarians (St. Emerich’s), Polish (St. Casimir’s), Slovakian (St. Stephen’s), Croatian (St. Rochus’), and German (Immaculate Conception). Each parish provided the anchor for immigrants making a home in a strange, new land; and giving a sense of community to what would become known as the Ellis Island of Johnstown.
But, times change. Johnstown, and America, has become more diverse, and ethnic enclaves don’t exist in the way they did a century ago. Since those enclaves were the element that gave those parishes life, the churches have, for several years now, been dying a slow death.
When I see a failed business, I feel a bit saddened. For me, a business represents someone’s dream and when that dream fails, I can’t help but feel empathy towards the person who rolled the dice and took that entrepreneurial chance. Businesses go under for a variety of reasons. Misreading the market, saturation of that good or service in a particular area, price structure, competition, or just plain poor management. Seeing a church close its doors is also disquieting, for altogether different reasons.
In recent years, many people have grown away from God. For some, there is the desire to free themselves from standards of behavior and judgment imposed from outside, preferring the independence of their own helm and rudder. They have found a measure of comfort in a sense of cynicism towards organized religion in general and God in particular. For them, the simplified justification that “if there was a God, there wouldn’t be any suffering in the world” gives them a sort of moral liberation from the perceived behavioral and ethical shackles and chains represented by, for example, the Ten Commandments.
Others may still believe in God, but feel strongly that organized religion has done more to get in the way of worship, rather than enhance it. News reports of ministers skimming cash, clergy involved in immoral activities with children, and cults enhance that impression.
And then there are those who are simply too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday morning.
Whatever the reasons, as people have stopped coming, congregations and parishes have waned dormant and empty, eventually closing their doors. Four large churches in a 10-by-3-block area might seem, from a business perspective, to be an example of market saturation. If Sheetz were to open three additional stations in the same area, it’s not likely they’d survive long, although I would venture to guess that more people cycle through a Sheetz on a typical morning than regularly attend many of the churches in Johnstown. But, the spiritual needs of humans are many and continuous, and certainly can’t be quenched by a mocha latte. A church is a sanctuary, a place where people may seek shelter from the storms of life, and strength from others who also suffer. In that sense, it is a market that can never be saturated.
Over the years, as I have talked with those who have left religion their personal rear view mirror, I have discovered a common misconception. A belief in God, or committed discipleship, will not keep bad things from happening. What it will do is to provide the support and strength to get through the bad times. Also, if we pay attention, there are inherent life lessons we can learn that will guide us in making choices which would help keep us out of trouble to begin with.
But, regardless of the heritage represented by these churches, there is the necessary, and at times, distasteful, business side of things. Utilities still must be paid, supplies must be purchased, maintenance of the buildings must still go on, and that requires money. For the arch diocese, this is necessarily a business decision. For those whose personal and family history is bound up in those buildings, my heart aches. I sincerely hope that those who will come to participate in the new consolidated parish will rediscover that sense of community, embracing each other in mutual hope. And that that hope would spread beyond the walls and doors to the homes that line the streets, and the families within; to restore the vibrancy which will bring the life back to Cambria City.