What does it mean to leave home? A group of nuns in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, are asking themselves this question. After a failed attempt to designate their sprawling, 400-acre campus as an historic district, these nuns have made the difficult decision to tear down the bulk of their convent. Their numbers are shrinking. Their members are aging. It’s just too much to keep up.
This news is heartbreaking – not just for the nuns, but for the whole community. The convent has been a neighborhood fixture for over a century. Its main building (called, for its role in the nuns’ regional order, a “motherhouse”) loomed large from the road, a lone constant as the surrounding community grew from forested wilderness to busy thoroughfare. As the neighborhood evolved, the motherhouse seemed to watch over the city, a reminder that its residents were perpetually praying for those nearby. Now, it’s going to be dismantled brick by brick and plowed into a field of prairie grass.
How can you tear down something as nurturing-sounding as a motherhouse?
How can you tear down something as nurturing-sounding as a motherhouse? Though demolition hasn’t yet begun, I already feel this loss acutely. When I still lived in Kalamazoo, I often found myself driving out to the convent if I felt confused or anxious or scared. Sometimes I walked the grounds, winding my way through the prayer labyrinth, hiking through the woods and hills abutting the campus. Other times, I just watched for the motherhouse from the road. Seeing that towering limestone, knowing those nuns were interceding for us all, was enough.
It’s become something of a cliché in the last ten years, the ancient church put up for sale, the monastery shuttered. In Detroit, near where I live now, it’s as common to see an abandoned chapel as it is to see a Walgreens. Detroit is a city on the rebound, but its ruins are still widespread (and often a tourist attraction). An architect friend of mine says he wishes they would stop tearing all of them down. “Why can’t they just build around the ruins, like in Europe?” he says. Part of me agrees with him: these places held such history that even watching them decompose seems vivifying.
One popular approach is to repurpose these sacred spaces for secular aims, say, to slice the cathedral into condominiums. Among the most inventive repurposing I’ve seen was at Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church in Manhattan that converted its chapel into an Australian breakfast joint. The result is inherently Instagrammable, but bizarre: avocado toast served under Gothic arches, lattes sipped next to a marble cornerstone declaring this building erected “to the glory of God.” When I left the cafe, I heard the steady thrum of indie music filtering through the adjacent sanctuary. Was this the sacred infiltrating the secular, or vice versa?
There’s something a little unnerving about replacing a place of worship with a place of commerce. But the coffee shop helps this historic parish in the heart of the city continue to serve the community; all that avocado toast helps pay for a food pantry, a soup kitchen, a Sunday school. Perhaps this is less like moneychangers in the temple and more like Saint Paul sewing tents as he preached. And it can be argued that the cafe qualifies as outreach: even those who feel ostracized from religion might pop in if the coffee’s good enough.
The best thing about Church of the Heavenly Rest is that its doors are still open, its community still thriving. Many congregations have not been so fortunate. Most ominous of all I’ve seen were all the dozens of parishes and monasteries and convents for sale in metro Boston after the Catholic sexual abuse lawsuits, real estate put up as the literal propitiation of sins. This is the very saddest reason a sacred space can be lost.
Even repurposed, these sacred spaces have a draw to them.
It’s easy to read shuttered churches as some kind of apocalyptic foreboding, as evidence of the death of religion in America, but I find such readings myopic and unhelpful. No one can fault a struggling congregation for being honest about its limited means and changing demographics. Nor can we fault a group of aging nuns for being unable to tend a 400-acre campus, refurbish decaying buildings, or withstand increasing costs.
I can’t even blame the cathedral-condo dweller. Who wouldn’t want to live beneath soaring ceilings, to eat one’s breakfast by the light of stained glass? Even repurposed, these sacred spaces have a draw to them. More than once, I have stayed in a hotel or retreat center and felt the holiness in the place before I knew it had been a church or a monastery. Those walls can’t forget all the prayers said within them.
Facing the loss of sacred space, we can make two egregious errors. The first is to assume that the physical spaces in which we worship (or have worshipped) do not matter. They do. To drive this point home, some Christian traditions (the aforementioned Episcopalians, for instance) read a specific prayer of deconsecration to recognize the important role these decommissioned spaces played in worship – and, equally important, to comfort a grieving congregation facing an uncertain future.
Paradoxically, the second mistake we can make is to believe that a sacred space can ever truly be made profane. Don’t misunderstand me: some actions are decidedly sacred and some are decidedly not, and Scripture is fairly clear on which is which. And, as we’ve already discussed, the spaces in which we work and live absorb much of what we do there. But if we believe the Psalmist when he says there is no place where God is not, and if we believe Christian tradition when it tells us that God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” we can begin to understand that sacred spaces don’t exist to contain the presence of God, nor to separate it from the outside world. They exist to remind us that God is everywhere, that the spiritual reality permeates the physical world, that there is nowhere we can go to flee his presence. They exist to remind us to gather together at the cup and be filled.
Perhaps shuttered churches do represent a religious ebb, or at the very least shifting demographics. But if there is some sort of decline, it is certainly not in the goodness or the power or the graces of God. It is in our ability to recognize God at work.
As I finish writing this essay, I’ve learned that two of the five churches guarding my hometown’s city square are going to be torn down, too.
It will be painful to visit that city square and see the empty spaces, and to see the field where the motherhouse once stood. But I suspect that empty field will still feel sacred. Perhaps the prairie grass will have soaked up a century’s worth of prayer and of praise. Perhaps the rocks themselves will cry out, and the trees of the field will clap their hands, and we will be led forth in peace onto that holy ground.