Guest Column: St. Augustine’s Ashes

St. Augustine’s in south Bos­ton—a grand old church of Irish Beantown—will close in November under Boston’s parish con­solidations. Its smaller counterpart, St. Monica’s, will remain open. The archdiocese’s logic makes sense: St. Augustine’s needed millions in mainte­nance and renovations, and it’s located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where churches closed in earlier con­tractions have since been converted into funky condominiums. But yup­pie encroachment, the abuse scandal’s tax on church finances, and suburban dispersal’s draw on parish rolls are not the only culprits. There are generally ignored, if surprising, third and fourth elements at work in the closing of par­ishes in American cities. A symptom­atic case, the church is a victim of its history and of how some families to­day understand its role in their lives.

St. Augustine’s story is a familiar one. For more than a century, it pro­vided an ordering presence for a tight­knit community, as a parish ought to do. Now, on any given Sunday, it stands as an abandoned hulk. Last winter, with paltry collection plates and archdiocesan finances tied up elsewhere, a few Masses were held without heat or electricity. Shivering in the candlelit, echoing space, I wondered if this was 21st-century cata­comb Catholicism in the American city. But before I could indulge in such romantic notions, the “local church” showed up, at least for one Sunday.

Shortly before the closure deci­sion was issued, St. Augustine’s held a “unity Mass.” Everyone connected with this well-known parish was en­couraged to make a show of its con­tinued importance, and a combination of Sunday obligation, media atten­tion, ethnic pride, and local politics overflowed the pews. But if the rous­ing, passionate speeches that followed Mass were any indication, the church’s purpose for the local laity is no longer to be the natural and prime bulwark of truth and unity. Now, it plays a sup­porting role: It is a Gothic adornment of cultural identity and family upkeep.

Amid much chest-thumping at an insensitive archdiocese and peat- rich folk tales of past parish glory, prominent speakers offered a subtly disordered, socially conservative de­fense of Church and family, or, more accurately, of family and Church. Congressman Stephen Lynch traced his genealogy back to the founding of the parish. St. Augustine’s future, ac­cording to his characteristic thinking, is important because St. Augustine’s past was. The church moves forward so that its old stock parishioners can continue gazing at its rich and receding past. The parish must live on, he and many others opined, because of the value it holds for area families. While this naturally sounds laudable, it isn’t necessarily so.

Religion performs a secondary function for many socially conserva­tive, partially practicing Christians today. For them, family proudly comes first, and every other component of life is ordered to its improvement and enrichment. With the family as the ultimate end, the church is a valuable means—the pretext for get-togethers and, at sacramental intervals, the back­drop for celebrations. Correcting this gradual deformation of the church’s purpose will require the difficult task of reminding many that “the family” is the ultimate means of fulfilling God’s mis­sion upon the earth, not vice-versa.

Faced with beloved parishes clos­ing, Catholics can recommit themselves fully to parish life or they can indulge in a musty brew of family nostalgia and ethnic melodrama. To revitalize the Church in America, we must encourage the former and avoid the latter. Other­wise, we may be left only with a prayer to St. Monica for miraculous, rather than condominium, conversions.


  • Randy Boyagoda

    Randy Boyagoda has written on religion and culture in First Things, Religion and Literature, The American Enterprise, and other publications.

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