In the classic 1965 cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas, amateur psychiatrist and unreliable football holder Lucy Van Pelt reveals what she really desires for a present: “real estate.” How fitting that the very year she first uttered that sentiment—the year in which Vatican II wrapped up its business—the Catholic Church began a downward trajectory in its leading indicators of priests, religious, seminarians, parishes, school enrollments, and so on. In recent decades, that trajectory has resulted in the closure and sale of a host of Catholic real estate: churches, convents, monasteries, schools, and rectories.
Even a cursory reading of Church history shows that the trend had typically been an expansion of the Church’s presence through acquisition of property. There have been checks on that growth but usually only because of schism and war. The destruction and confiscation of property during the Protestant revolution is a prime example. The fate of the English monasteries is an object lesson in that regard, and Henry VIII could be seen as the progenitor of the modern understanding of eminent domain.
But not all transfer of property out of Church hands is the result of external hostile forces, and this is where the story grows maddening. Avid readers of twentieth-century Catholic books might know or remember My Beloved: The Story of a Carmelite Nun by Mother Catherine Thomas. First published in 1955, it is by turns charming, funny, informative, and spiritually edifying. However, as I read it, I could not help thinking that this lovely sketch of a woman’s spiritual journey was incomplete because it did not show what happened a decade later with the ravaging effects of Vatican II.
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A small amount of research showed that the Carmel of St. Joseph in Oklahoma City, where Mother Catherine dwelt, lasted until 1985 when that property was sold and the community moved to a different location in Oklahoma. Then the convent’s building was sold to a Georgian Orthodox monastic community which opened in 2021. We can try to put a positive spin on the situation by saying “at least it wasn’t sold to Satanists or polytheists.” That’s true, but the Orthodox are still in schism, and the decline of Carmelites may have some connection to the present crisis of vocations to the priesthood and problems within the ranks of active priests. The Carmelite vocation is, in part, to pray especially for priests. Not only is the Catholic Church giving up physical real estate, it is ceding control of spiritual territory to others.
Unfortunately, there are a growing number of cases of Catholic churches sold into private hands for secular (aka profane) use. Since churches frequently occupy sites that have become desirable in pricier zip codes, some of the buyers have converted the buildings into homes. The Wall Street Journal, on October 18, 2023, published a story titled “To Turn a Church Into a Home, It Takes Some Elbow Grease and a Little Bit of Faith.” The writer profiles several families and their experiences with renovating and decorating the one-time churches. The positive spin here would be that at least families are living in these buildings and they are not being used as mosques or lewd performance spaces.
But how much comfort is that line of thinking to those who worshipped in those churches? It is a breaking of the covenant between past, present, and future generations. Previous generations sacrificed to buy property to build and decorate spiritual homes. If nothing else, that implies the Church’s endorsement of breaking promises. Consider the case of the church in Tacoma, Washington, where I was received into the Faith: Holy Rosary. Setting aside the soaring interior conducive to an “I’m definitely in a church” frame of mind, the towering steeple bore witness to our Faith to the thousands of daily I-5 commuters in the greater Seattle area. Now the parish is closed and the building will likely be torn down, no doubt netting the rapidly shrinking Archdiocese of Seattle a tidy sum.
My hometown in New York’s North Country supplies another, albeit more modest, example—but one still indicative of a receding Catholicism. Just like dioceses all over the world, but especially in North America and Europe, the Diocese of Ogdensburg, New York, has been in numerical decline for decades. The priestly ranks are growing older in aggregate and seminarians are not enough in number to replenish them. Religious orders have collapsed along with the Catholic schools. Catholics have stopped coming to Mass and having children.
Ten years ago, the four local parishes underwent a reorganization. Three of the parishes were within the village of approximately 5,500 souls and one was several miles out. In the past five years, the consolidated parish saw another change with two of the buildings in the village being closed, decommissioned, and put on the market. One—a large 1960s box on Main Street, has not yet sold; the other, a folksy neighborhood church once staffed by the Pallottines, was sold to a Protestant group. One former school is now owned by the public school system, and a house and lot formerly home to Ursulines is now a drug rehab center. The other school was closed due to low enrollment and now houses the parish office, St. Vincent de Paul store, and a soup kitchen. Caring for those in need is a Christian imperative, but it cannot be privileged over preaching the Gospel in the divine mission to save souls.
Is the Church doomed to try to maintain a dwindling flock and a crumbling building stock? While overall trends are not encouraging, there are achievements to applaud. As I write this, there is a story going viral about a French nun tackling an environmental activist at the construction site of a new building. That building is meant to be a residence and chapel for a French religious order. Another achievement is the May 2023 consecration of the huge Immaculata Church in Kansas built by the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X and funded by the faithful. God’s Kingdom is meant to expand and grow and proclaim. Ironically, that is what Vatican II allegedly proposed, but its results have proven to be the opposite of its stated intentions. Is the Church doomed to try to maintain a dwindling flock and a crumbling building stock?Tweet This
Truly, the news is grim in most places. There is much work to do and it will take several generations to undo the corrosive legacy of Vatican II and its aftermath. One small part of the renewed battle to take back real estate is to learn history. We are a history-starved civilization these days. To see and understand the struggles of the past—especially in the place we call home and where we have ties of family and shared experiences—is perhaps to feel a renewed sense of responsibility.
A local parish near where I live is celebrating a century in its current building. To help garner contributions for repairs, the parish has put together a historical booklet about how the church building came to be. It was a long process and involved the sacrifices of many.
When it comes to real estate, the memory of what was can lapse into sentimentality, or it can spark a revitalization. It’s time to start buying and begin building again.