Loneliness and the Death of the Catholic Town

“How much shall we put you down for, sir?” asks the philanthropist on Christmas Eve, standing in the dingy countinghouse where Ebenezer Scrooge plies his lawful trade in misery.


“You wish to remain anonymous?”

“I wish,” says Scrooge, “to be left alone!”

Mine is a land of loneliness. We may not be as miserly as Scrooge—we like to spend money, anyway but, like Scrooge, we will not acknowledge the claims of others upon our choices, and so countless children must die to protect the principle of our solitude.

What do we Catholics do about it? Nothing different than our countrymen. Our Master bids us go forth as pilgrims unto the ends of the earth, preaching the Good News and baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet one can go forth while keeping the fires lit at home: Paul braved the seas, but recommended to his flock that they look to their households, choosing as bishops men who had loved their wives, raised upright children, and welcomed good men by their hospitality. Such Christians may travel far in love, while never sitting astride a mule to journey beyond the nearby city. We are now instead restless motorists who do not advance a single mile.

The ghost of Marley says that in life his spirit never went forth among his fellow men. Nor do we go forth: We go away. We cut our ties. At night we abandon the cities where we work, and in the day we abandon the splotches of houses where we sleep, corrupting at once what used to be a city and what used to be a village or farmland or forest. We divorce at will; we retain the “right” to sever the child from the womb; we are in sexual matters exactly what Scrooge was in financial, acknowledging no duty to our fellow man to keep our habits charitable and clean. My countrymen are perhaps more than any other generation supinely dependent upon others for food, clothing, and shelter, yet in their hearts they repeat the delusion of Satan at the bottom of the world, saying, “I am my own, I am my own.”

Where can we find the wild sprouts of life in this culture of loneliness? The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a mustard seed. Think of the small, the local, the boy at Scrooge’s keyhole, singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” At one’s feet is the seedling, the dandelion muscling up through the blacktop. At one’s feet is a home, and children, and a neighbor; a stream to love, a patch of grass, a steeple and bell to toll one’s hours, the first and the last.

That is the genius of the much-misunderstood “Catholic social teaching,” our best chance to recover the human—the farm, the village, the city neighborhood—from the cold and gray, the horrible “right” to be one’s own. It is not a political program for massive transfers of wealth. Such a thing would be but a bureau of the Culture of Loneliness, some Department of Church Affairs. “Man is a political animal,” says Aristotle, the philosopher upon whose insights Thomas Aquinas built his teachings regarding the state; but we should remember what he meant by it. “Man,” he says, “is that living creature who may best attain his end—practical and intellectual virtue—in the context of a polis.” And a polis, says he, must be small enough for its people to know everyone in it, if not by sight then by reputation or by family. Such people, to see and hear and jostle against, make claims upon us that are immediate and bodily. That is why we, like Scrooge, want them far away.

Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in some legal polygon, some fiction on a map or in a tax code. A truly Catholic social teaching must be incarnational: It begins from the premise that we belong to one another in small and intimate ways. We are Bob Cratchit’s keeper on this street, in this neighborhood, in this town. We hear a lad singing through the door left ajar. We throw snowballs at the neighborhood boys. We see laundry on the line, in all shapes and sizes and colors, and can guess whose caboose fits where. We know the whiff of the neighbor’s favorite cigar. We let the men be men, the women be women, the children be children, that it may be all the more gladsome when men and women and children come together. We laugh in humility, “Well, who would want to be alone, anyway!”

But rather than theorize about the Catholic community, I would like to show you one, before its last light winks out and it merges back into the darkness. Like all the really important places in the world, it’s not much. It is Archbald, Pennsylvania, the town where I was born. It may be your town, too.

When I stood on the back porch of our small house, ready in the chill morning to troop off to school, I saw what I’d grown to marvel at. Far below us, yet not half a mile away, rose the tall spire of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church. Behind and above the church ran streets and houses, strung on a terrace-work that followed the jagged terrain. I could see them at eye level, but to go there you’d have to walk down and up the ravine that lay between us, carved out of the mountains by the river. There were rounded mountaintops and woods beyond those houses in every direction. The difficulty of the land made sprawl impossible: The streets seemed to reach and crook backwards until they tired out. You knew when you were in my town, because if you weren’t in my town, you were in the woods.

If I’ve made it sound beautiful, I haven’t described it properly; it wasn’t. That was the beauty of it. Its most prominent features were enormous mounds of coal dust called “culm,” great black pyramids on which nothing could grow. But they were our dumps, because they came from our coal, from our mines; and it was mining that had scrambled Archbald together in the first place.

What was it like to live in that raw young town, in the days when Irish immigrants worked in the mines or on the famous Gravity Railroad? People were poor, no question, and breathing airborne coal is no way to lengthen your life. Yet they were a community. It was all one to them and their own: church and town hall, mine and playground, ball field and watering hole.

There’s a picture of Archbald I especially like. It’s taken from the top of one of the coal heaps. You can see railroads and a big coal breaker in the foreground and, just beyond them, the church towering over the crazy quilt of houses crammed in between the mines and the river. It is hardly ten years after the founding of the borough, yet the Irishmen, poor as they were, have built a truly grand church in a neo-Roman style. To decorate its interior they hired (naturally) a painter from Italy, one Costaggini, whose Crucifixion in the apse is one of the finest religious works I’ve ever seen in an American church. The walls and ceiling he covered in frescoes of prophets and apostles, of scenes from the life of Christ, and of the Immaculate Conception (with Dominic, Thomas, and Pius IX looking upon Mary in adoration as she crushes the serpent’s head). These were, again, very ordinary people who built the church and hired the faraway Italian to paint it.

But the vicinity of church and railroad suggests that in other ways, too, one’s work and one’s worship were not far apart. As like as not, the managers of the Gravity Railroad and the owners of the breakers were themselves Catholic. So, in 1877, to clear an enormous debt of $8,000 on the new church, Father McManus made a remarkable appeal to the miners. Orders for the region’s anthracite had grown erratic, and the mines had been temporarily closed. But at Father’s request the men approached the Delaware and Hudson Company to ask for an extra week’s work so they could earn the money to save the church. The company agreed. For the next week every man and boy worked those mines and breakers and gave over their earnings to the parish. The payroll for these many hundreds of workers amounted to $7,500, and some private contributions made up the deficit.

It is instructive to ask how much of that story—which came to pass in the bad old days of breaker boys and heartless capitalists—could not now occur. The boys work alongside men and are becoming men in the process; the labor is back-breaking, but people work together, just as the women would leave everything and hurry to the mines at the sound of the dreaded siren, just as all would kneel together on a Sunday. The church was their proudest possession, and they turned out their pockets to build it and make it fine, even though the times were doubtful and their money ran low. The managers of the Delaware and Hudson remembered (and they did not always remember; Archbald saw its share of labor disputes and strikes) that they belonged to a community, not to themselves, nor to some monstrous international corporation with no loyalties anywhere. And the amount raised? Take one week’s salary from everyone who attends your parish church. That would save many a failing Catholic school, would it not?

But just as Scrooge’s problem was not money but solitude, so the generosity of the old Archbald natives lay not in money but in their life as a community. Read Rerum Novarum alongside that greatest of encyclicals in support of the family, Casti Connubii. They are twin warriors for a Catholic society, those two. You cannot starve the family of money, nor can you starve the family of its authority. If a nation swims in money but has lost the family, and with the family the parish and the community, then that nation is poor indeed. Families do need money; but more than that, they need the state to recognize their priority. Families and the churches they build render the greatest of services to the state. They do what the state cannot: They produce citizens, in the fullest sense of that word.

Consider another photograph. It is September 1918, and all Archbald has come out on a bright fall day to celebrate the return of its native sons, home from the Great War. One of the telephone poles leans at a broken angle, and homes, outhouses, and chicken coops seem jumbled together in a heap. Yet the people have all their riches on display as they parade down Main Street. On the left is the man who had shepherded the Archbald flock for 26 years, Rev. Thomas Comerford, with his black coat and shiny top hat. He strides along, carrying a small American flag over his shoulder. Behind him follows an army of little girls in white dresses, stockings, and bonnets, also carrying flags. Behind them, little boys in white blazers and dark trousers. Behind the boys, barely visible, follow 50 young men in fancy dark uniforms, blazoned with white pinstripes down the side. They march while bracing scabbarded swords behind their necks. These are the Knights of Father Mathew, a Catholic temperance league (in an Irish town—but Father Comerford was a man of considerable moral force and leadership). Behind them, as I note from another photograph, a great brass band. I can’t tell who’s behind the band, or which banner-spreading ladies are marching before their good priest. The parade stretches at least a mile. This, in a town of 5,000.

Now, there are stories hidden in that photograph. Take Father Comerford. It was said of this man, though small of stature (compare him with the girls), that he was the last example of an absolute monarch in the Western world. My grandmother remembered him as the fellow who instructed Italian newcomers to attend Holy Ghost Church, two miles away in the predominantly Italian town of Jessup. I don’t think it was bigotry. I’m Italian, and if it was, I don’t much care. My guess is that he saw that community life needed to be fostered, Irish or Italian, both at Saint Thomas Aquinas and at Holy Ghost.

For this Father Comerford knew that you ought to worship beside the man you drink beside. For 20 years the parish had enjoyed as its meeting place the Father Mathew Opera House. It had a dance hall on the second floor and a theater downstairs. Evidently the good people of Archbald managed, like people everywhere before the blare of television, to entertain themselves with song and dance and skit. When the building was sold, Father Comerford proposed to his people—and that was tantamount to proposing to the borough—the building of a three-story parish hall. On the day it was dedicated in 1914, the whole borough shut down; flags and bunting streamed from homes and businesses. Not only did the mayor show up, but dignitaries from the diocese and from various boroughs and cities in the region, a major and a captain from the Pennsylvania National Guard, and, as master of ceremonies, one Michael J. Ryan, city solicitor of Philadelphia. They paraded to the hall, where the honored solicitor delivered an address on citizenship. Dancing, entertainment, card games, concerts, and bazaars continued for a week.

What had Father Comerford built? On the first floor, a kitchen and large game room, with pool tables, benches, and tables with periodicals he himself donated; also a refreshment stand and smoke booth. On the second floor, a large room for banquets; in the rear, a carpeted meeting room for such parish groups as the Altar Society, the Rosary and Scapular Society, the Boys’ Angel Sodality, the Girls’ Angel Sodality, and a good dozen more. On the third floor, an auditorium and gymnasium, with balcony and movable bleachers. The students of the public high school—note well—played there; also several other teams, cobbled together by the men and boys, without any special coaching or organization: The Mohawks, the Pequods, and the wonderfully named Homely Five.

No wonder, then, that Father had the authority to cajole the Borough Council into building a bridge down the road from the church, or that he once stationed a policeman on the steps of Saint Thomas Aquinas to arrest anybody who left Mass early on what pretext I can hardly imagine. Yes, I know about the sacrosanct separation of church and state. But the man was a character; there was a bluff humor in the act, and nobody was hurt by it.

For the people of Archbald were not learned in the serpentine subtleties of the law. They saw that the church was a good thing, and the borough was a good thing (and gymnasiums and luncheonettes were good things), and they thought that with a little common sense and community spirit those good things could get along without a lot of fuss.

My last photograph is of the old Archbald High School at its dedication in 1906. It was a handsome brick building with a belfry, constructed like a town hall or a church, perhaps because citizenship, virtue, and godliness were thought to be friends after all. When my mother attended that school, the Catholic students were trooped every Friday afternoon to the parish hall opposite (convent, church, rectory, parish hall, public high school, all on one block) for CCD classes. They had to go—the public school teachers themselves saw to it. If you weren’t Catholic, you went home.

Archbald had and still has a Lutheran church (in those days it kept alive its own community spirit by running German classes for the children), a Presbyterian church, a breakaway Mormon church, and a small contingent of Jews (including Harry Sugerman, whose retail store was a magnet for shoppers from a hundred miles away). I imagine that Irish Catholic boys shouldered German Lutheran boys off the sidewalk once in a while, or vice versa. But when the Depression hit, there was Revered Yiengst doling out soup and bread alongside the Irish pastor. Fighting can be one of the more bumptious ways of getting along.

I remember when that high school closed for good—I was a boy, attending the parochial school in what had been the parish hall. In some ways I witnessed the last slender survivors of a community life. In the spring of my second grade I’d had to attend the public school, and I can recall our teacher, a rosy old lady named Mrs. McAndrew, sitting down at the piano and opening our day with ”Praise to the Lord”—the first time I had ever heard that hymn, since we had only recently adopted the Mass in English. That was years after the community-destroying decision of the Supreme Court banning school prayer.

I recall the morning of Memorial Day, when my cousins and I would get up very early, race to the Protestant cemetery at the top of our hill, listen to Taps and the 21-gun salute, then hop a fire truck (these were the days before safety preserved the body and killed the soul), parade through town amid bands and cheerleaders and police cars and men in uniform, stop at the big Catholic cemetery across town, listen to Taps and guns again, hear Mass outdoors, then re-ascend the fire trucks as the whole parade made its final stop at the American Legion, where the Legionnaires gave us doughnuts and orange juice. Archbald still had a baseball team in the regional Mountain League in those days, and we boys admired an old man named Coleman—had to be over 40 years old—who still threw smoke. The last coal breaker had burned to the ground in what was surely arson, but the culm dumps and the abandoned mines and the heaps of coal were still there, for a grand if unusual playground.

What happened to Archbald in the next few decades has happened to your town, too. Oh, the borough did finally climb out of its economic doldrums and actually put up street signs, donated by the Lions Club. Businesses bought land on U.S. Route 6 and turned it into a strip of shopping plazas, as in Everywhere, USA. But money can sooner buy divorce than buy community. The high school was abandoned in favor of a sprawling and ugly complex, a consolidated school that sucked the life out of three adjoining boroughs at once. It looks like a prison or a factory, and of course it was placed far from where most of the people live. The old high school was used once more, as the headquarters for the borough centennial in 1976. Then it was razed.

The parish hall, remade into a parochial school, faced sudden hard times. In the late 1960s, perhaps in the same delusional optimism that would later be called the Spirit of Vatican II, the Diocese of Scranton began a building campaign. They called it, with snazzy punctuation and all, Project: Expansion. Parishioners were supposed to pledge money. My parents did, and were among the portion who actually paid up. Nobody saw the sexual revolution coming, or nobody cared. The Pill came a-peddling. Families shriveled. My third-grade class had 47 kids in it; we peaked at 51, all in one room, taught by one nun. By the time my sister attended, the numbers were cut in half. The sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary contracted a virulent strain of feminism, and their numbers, too, dwindled rapidly. The parish had to hire lay people to teach and could hardly afford to do so. An old pastor had donated $100,000 of his family money to keep the school going in perpetuity; 20 years later, the building would be sold to the borough. It is now used for offices and a lockup. No game room, no luncheonette, no theater, no school. I do not know whether they have kept the statue of Thomas Aquinas overlooking the wainscoted entry. This has happened in a town that in its first 100 years gave the Church 45 priests and 51 sisters.

Cable television carries plenty of ballgames, so the Mountain League is no more. I can recall no drama club in my town and no choir outside the church. The Presbyterian church was sold to the borough for use one year as a youth center, till drugs and booze shut it down. That also has been razed and is now a parking lot. The Mormon church is somebody’s duplex. Saint Thomas Aquinas still boasts an Altar and Rosary Society and a strong pro-life group, but the parish is no longer at the center of the borough’s life, if for no other reason than that there is no center of the borough’s life. Memorial Day parades are past.

The culm dumps have been removed, used for fuel by a gargantuan energy plant that now looms over the town, ugly and without charm. You can no longer motorcycle up the sides of them. The railroad beds, all but one, have been torn up. Some are now bike paths, and that is good; but hardly anyone now lives in Archbald who also works in Archbald, and that is not good. New subdivisions have sprouted, with houses far apart and few children to interrupt the solitude. No candy stores or groceries there. Not the school, nor the church, nor the ball field, nor the watering hole unites the people. Women are not home, so whole neighborhoods are eerie and empty even on a summer’s day. In Archbald it is still true that you know a lot of your neighbors, who married whom, and whose sister ran off to New York; but that knowledge is fading. The Catholic Church has been welltended—the good pastor has preached the fullness of the Faith, so that Archbald knows none of the abuses that have rotted the life of many a parish elsewhere. But the soul of the borough it once served is dying. I do not enjoy returning.

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” says the Lord God. As I walk to Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, musing at what was once my school, I seem to hear the echoes of boys of old, building their toboggans and whizzing down the quarter-mile-long hill nearby, attaining the speed of a train as they went airborne over the snowed-up tracks. It was once a town, and the people drank and played and worshiped and marched and mourned and sang together.

Social teaching? Scrooge was something of a political theorist; it was the small and the human that he missed. Let us return to that mustard seed. Show me an old Catholic town, and I will show you the wisdom of Pope Leo alive and bustling. I pray I may see such a place again.


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