I remember visiting the historical Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter in New Orleans a number of years ago. It was now solely a place for tourists to visit and learn about the history of the people, the nuns and the city.
When the French settlers and soldiers established themselves, they immediately sent for the nuns to provide necessary ministries to the community. They were to establish a hospital, a school, and an orphanage. They were to do it immediately and soon thereafter eight nuns from France arrived on a boat.
As Catholics came to America in different waves from different parts of Europe, the church came with them and provided the social services that they would require because Catholics were hated in the same way many minorities are now. One of the missions of the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist anti-immigrant groups such as the Know-Nothings was to protect the nation from Jews, Catholics, and keep those of other races in their place.
For the reasons of poverty and protection, Catholics would live in ghettos of those from generally the same national origin. Priests and sisters would follow them and establish hospitals, schools, parishes and orphanages. We can see the remnants of these churches in cities such as Boston, Baltimore, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
There may be several Catholic churches clumped together since one was established as the Irish church, the Italian church, the Polish church, the French church, and the German church. Just because one shared the same faith, you didn’t go to the same church nor did you affiliate with those from a different national origin.
Now as the successive generations of these immigrants have assimilated into the American mainstream and have moved to the suburbs, these national churches are no longer necessary and dioceses have been shutting them down. If these churches are still open they serve a different wave of immigrants and/or people come from the suburbs to worship in these inner city churches for the sake of nostalgia.
The experience in Utah was different and the same. The first two Catholic churches were in Park City (1881) and Eureka (1885), two mining towns. The priests and the nuns came and they established hospitals and schools. Generally speaking the Catholics were the miners, whether they were mining for silver or coal. When some struck it rich, they moved to Salt Lake and with that silver money they built the Cathedral of the Madeleine and had their kids educated at Judge (all boys) or St. Mary’s (all girls). They went to the Holy Cross Hospital that was run by the Holy Cross Sisters and they were buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in the Avenues.
We are still running with the same paradigm in our heads of what a church should provide, however we don’t have the sisters anymore and the number of priests is continuing to decline. We still have schools run by lay people. The hospitals have all been sold (Holy Cross in Salt Lake City; St. Benedict in Ogden). The Huntsville Monastery has been sold. Catholic Community Services still exists and is run by lay professionals. St. Joseph’s Villa has been sold and is being run by a secular for-profit company. Kearns St. Anne Orphanage is now a Catholic school.
The parishes throughout the diocese have generally remained open except for a few (like St. Patrick’s in Eureka) that only have a few parishioners left and have mass once a month. The number of Catholics has been growing, largely due to immigration from south of the border. We depend on other countries to send us their priests to serve as missionaries to help our parishes keep their sacramental ministries going, otherwise the priests of the diocese would be spread far and wide.
So what do organizations do when their structure and leadership have changed rapidly over the past 50 years? What happens when you once had a large grouping of extremely dedicated people who vowed themselves to God to live a life of poverty, prayer and ministry to paid professionals who need to support their families and deserve a just wage? The shell is the same, however what makes the organization work is quite different. The people who run the churches and her organizations are dedicated and love their ministry, however they are married, have children, and grandchildren, and so there is a difference.
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:33, a married man is concerned for the things of this world, and unmarried man (or woman) is concerned for things of the Lord. Paul speaks of the division that this causes in one’s heart and ultimately celibacy allows for greater freedom (at least in theory) from Paul’s perspective. At my last parish I heard of the sadness caused when Holy Cross Hospital (now Salt Lake Regional) was sold and the sisters left. The hospital without the sisters had lost its warmth and its spirit. The chapel where the sisters prayed every day was just a relic of what the hospital once was and ceased to be.
In our liturgies, we have been listening to Acts of the Apostles and how Paul and Barnabas established communities in Asia Minor composed of Jews and Greeks. They did this with little to no resources other than their missionary spirit. These early Christian missionaries risked their lives and did so willingly to spread the good news. Paul formed the community, trained the leaders (overseers, presbyters and deacons), and then moved on to establish new communities. From his letters, we understand some of the challenges they faced.
For those in the not-too-distant past, following their vocation to be a sister, brother, or priest meant the opportunity to be educated, to live in a community of prayer, have a private room with three squares, be given a role with status in the community, and live a life with a purpose.
For women who lived in a patriarchal society, they could run important and powerful organizations such as hospitals, social service organizations, colleges, etc., which would otherwise be impossible for them if they did not belong to a religious order due to the structural sexism in the society. They didn’t have to submit to a husband’s authority or worry about dying in childbirth. They could do something other than what was their lot in life for being female.
Leadership has the awkward and impossible responsibility of maintaining past structures, while attempting to adapt to the current time, and proactively preparing for the future. We have to remind ourselves that church is fundamentally about people who are forming a community based on their relationship with God.
Over the history of the Catholic Church, we have answered the question that we are a community that does this. We built and staffed hospitals, since our kind weren’t welcome or could not afford care in the established hospitals, or there was no health care at all, so miner hospitals like those in Utah were established.
We built and staffed schools and universities, since public schools were structured for Protestants and Catholic Bishops worried children would lose their faith. We built and staffed churches and cathedrals, so that people could assemble, be guided by the priest’s sermon, hear pretty music, worship, etc.
Now that we no longer have the staff or the funds to maintain such large organizations, and we are no longer discriminated against for being Catholic, Italian, Polish, or Irish, we may wish to rethink how we should direct our efforts. The Catholic Church has moved out of the ghetto; however, we still live amongst the remnants of that time and we still have the mindset.
We may come to the realization that the community is merely those who show up and share their gifts empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is the local church in communion with other communities of real people. We still haven’t come to understand who we are now and what we should and can do in the present time, since for some the church is a television station and for others it is a rosy remembrance of the past.
Like many other things in our world, such as our water systems, roads, and the electrical grid, we live off of what our ancestors built. However, what they built has yet to collapse completely, so we put it off to another day, watching the cracks grow on what remains.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.