My husband and I sat with my father at mass this past Sunday, the ritual and order of the service familiar to each one of us, imprinted in a combined nearly 200 years of experience with the Roman Catholic Church. This church, which was renamed the Church of the Resurrection after three predominately Black churches, St. Andrew, St. Agnes, and St. Mark were merged, is where my parents attended church together for the last several years until my mother passed away in 2017. This parish used to be St. Agnes, and of the three churches it had the newest building, plus the parking that was needed to accommodate parishioners coming from many different neighborhoods. For these and other reasons the diocese decided to make St. Agnes the home of the combined congregations and adopt a new name.
The imagery of rocks has figured in my upbringing in church. First, it was through the words of the bible in Matthew 16, where Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church.” Depending on your theology, you might think of St. Peter as that rock, the foundation of the church, at least that is what I was taught as a child in school. Later in life, when I took the time to study the words for myself, and discuss what “rock” the words were referring to, I came to see the words as much broader in meaning, sensing that the foundation of the church was not one individual, but rather the faith community and its principles I was to live by, such as faith, love, and a concern for others.
Rocks were also mentioned in some of the hymns we sang in church, not just Catholic churches, but in the other churches I have attended or visited during my life—Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist. We sang songs about the “rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” There was another song of encouragement, where the singer reveals that “when I need shelter, when I need a friend, I go to the rock.” A rock serves as a symbol of a solid foundation, a place of shelter, and God’s provision.
At the end of the service, the priest and deacon stood with somber faces at the front, preparing to make an announcement to all attending. I had noticed what appeared to be a few baskets wrapped in cloth at the base of the altar, but could not make out what was inside of them. They explained for those who had not yet had a chance to drive by old St. Andrews, which had closed in the summer of 2010, that demolition of the church had begun. It was being torn down, and the site was up for sale. With those words, my father covered his eyes and his shoulders began to rock as he dabbed at his eyes to keep from sobbing.
The priest mentioned that he knew the news would hit some members especially hard because of their lifelong or at least lengthy affiliation with St. Andrews. They also acknowledged how seldom a church is torn down, because where it is possible, the diocese tries to sell the land and building for other uses. I think that is why my father took the news hard, because the building was coming down and this is where he and my mother were married, along with my aunt and uncle, and cousin. I remember standing in the back of the church when I was around five, my cousin and I following my aunt’s directions since we would be flower girls in her wedding ceremony.
Decades ago, when I moved back from California, soon to be divorced and a single parent, St. Andrews is where I was made to feel welcome. A few years later, I stood in the pulpit to do a reading at my uncle’s funeral. I also worked next to my father when he ran the kitchen serving meals to those who needed help, and my daughter had her First Communion there. My mother told a story of how before she and my father were dating and married, as a young adult my father would often be late for mass. Instead of sliding quietly in the pew, he would remain standing, taking his time to take off his coat and hat, placing them neatly in the pew before sitting down. I teased her and told her it must have worked, because it clearly got her attention. I was baptized there, along with three of my four bothers. Now the building was being crushed into rubble and piles of stones and rocks.
It seems as if churches of all denominations are crumbling or in crisis these days—sexual abuse in the Catholic and Baptist churches, and the recent decision of the United Methodist Church regarding the full participation of LGBTQ members in its churches. However, despite these issues many of us persist in attending services, not because we agree with everything being taught, but because we attempt to change churches from within or have deep relationships through years, if not decades, of fellowship with other church members. For many of us, in times of crisis and joy, the church has been a place where we can lay down a burden, celebrate major life events, or sit quietly, maybe even anonymously, while we sort out life’s challenges.
The baskets were placed on the communion rail and they told us they thought some of us might want a memento from the church, a piece of stone to keep as a reminder of the history of that place. When mass was over, I went up to the basket and got two stones, one for my father, and another for myself. His rock is bigger, it seemed fitting because he has had so many more memories of time spent there than I have. I am certain it was hard, his remembering that St. Andrews was where he and my mother were married, and now she has passed on, just like the building. The building will probably be gone the next time I go home. I’ll see the land, cleared of old St. Andrews church, whenever I drive down Reading Road on the way downtown. I’ll try to convince myself the church is more than that building, that the church is a rock, a foundation, a place where people gather to praise, worship, receive comfort and support.
That’s what I’ll say to myself, but deep down I know a piece of our history—the church’s, my family’s, that community’s—has been chiseled away. Years will pass and there may come a time when no one will remember the majestic gray stone church with stained glass windows that sat on a hill in Avondale or the people who worked so hard for many years to keep it standing. When there is no one else to turn to, who do I lean on?
I go to the rock.