Common Wisdom: The Great American Church Series

The conservative monthly the American Spectator runs something called the Great American Saloon Series—affectionate profiles of atmospheric bars here and abroad. I have often thought that one could do such a series on some of the thousands of distinctive Catholic churches in the United States and the rest of the world. I meant not so much Chartres and St. Peter’s, but all the humble parishes of St. So-and-So that minister, in their different styles, to the varied members of the body of Christ. There are small country churches, wood-shingled or clapboard; old downtown city churches, nineteenth-century American versions of Gothic or baroque; old immigrant churches with Polish or Slovak or German Masses; Eastern-rite churches maintaining their place amid slightly puzzled Roman-rite neighbors.

Even today, when orthodox Catholics compare churches mostly with an eye toward cataloguing liturgical abuses, there are many churches I call to mind with simple love and gratitude, rather than factional favor or disfavor. Near the top of my list is a church I visited often in the years I lived and worked in New York City: St. Agnes, across from Grand Central Station.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it dressed up, so to speak, on a Sunday, and I never made it to one of Fulton Sheen’s famous Good Friday services. But in the daily routine of Catholic life, and in its hard-working, responsible priests, St. Agnes shone for me and crowds of other Catholic commuters.

I would come up out of Grand Central Station from the train or subway, and unless I were late or had an early appointment, I would dash across the street, halfway down the block, and down the flight of stairs to the lower church. If I had miscalculated and found that the brisk 20-minute Mass had proceeded without me, I could run out and up to the main church, a large, heavy, holy vault, with saint statues and scattered holy cards and vigil lights flickering within their colored glass. Upstairs and downstairs, all through the hours-long morning and evening commuter rush, the Masses would alternate. Upstairs and downstairs, the priests — plain diocesan priests, nothing fancy in their presentation — would come and say the prayers and read the gospel and give a thoughtful three-minute sermon on the readings or the day’s saint, and move on to reenact Calvary, upstairs and downstairs, back and forth. You could see Christ’s redemptive sacrifice in a special way for seeing it through the Church of St. Agnes and all the anonymous people it served.

The Masses were short and to the point: people had jobs to go to, bosses waiting, or, in the evening, homes waiting, meals to be cooked and eaten. The priests had no time to fuss with the liturgy, tinker with music, or experiment with projecting personality. But they were reverent and serious. They weren’t racing through the words to get it over with; they moved briskly, precisely, to make it possible for their commuters to interrupt the commute, however briefly, to encounter Christ.

St. Agnes and the people it served from Monday to Friday constituted for me a New York more varied and vivid than Lincoln Center or Greenwich Village or Columbus Avenue or Central Park, a New York that included all the boroughs and the suburbs beyond, and covered all classes, from janitors and maids and secretaries and taxi drivers to (even!) bankers and lawyers. This was my somewhat romantic way of picturing the Church Militant, the Church on earth, the larger Church beyond my own Bronx parish. I visualized all those people running (one was always running in New York) up and down the stairs of St. Agnes, running to receive our Lord and then, all too soon, running out to collide with the beggars on the sidewalk in front of the church.

Most of my growing up took place in a post-triumphalist Church — a ’60s and early ’70s shrinking, riven, demoralized, muted, and apologetic Church. And though one might (if one could shake off the miasma of contemporary guilt and self-doubt and mediocrity) contemplate great deeds and monuments of the Catholic past, there was little in current affairs to inspire one: in dwindling, aging congregations and the ubiquity of cafeteria Catholics. St. Agnes, like the other commuter parishes in midtown and downtown New York, was heartening in its sense of purpose, its crowded services, and the piety of its worshipers. Ash Wednesday was particularly inspiring, with throngs of people leaving the church marked with ash to fan out through the city, presenting a vivid picture of the measure of yeast working in the dough. That early morning Ash Wednesday scene would call up Evelyn Waugh’s description of a similar scene 40-odd years earlier, in New Orleans the morning after Mardi Gras:

Across the way the Jesuit church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous dense crowd of all colors and conditions moving up to altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” . . . All that day, all over that light-hearted city, one encountered the little black smudge on the forehead which sealed us members of a great brotherhood who can both rejoice and recognize the limits of rejoicing.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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