RE: the Closing of St. George Church of Shenandoah, PA: the oldest Lithuanian parish in the US
Dr. Dan Paul, Member: Friends of St George of Shenandoah
The following is our statement of hope and resolve to preserve an icon of faith, culture, and tradition given by our parents. We do not necessarily expect this to be placed in the newspaper, but it is our way of communicating our thoughts related to the shameful closing of St. George Church of Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, PA.
It is the oldest Lithuanian Catholic Parish in American. Structurally, it is one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the United States. Historically, it stands unique as one of the earliest, monumental statements of a newly arriving immigrant people’s hope in a new nation. Amazingly, it was not erected in a populace city; it was not brought into existence by wealthy benefactors, or to seat church hierarchy. St. George was built in a poor, small coal mining town in Northeast, Pennsylvania by the donations and labor of common, depressed laborers who saw in St. George a confirmation in the faith of their fathers and an acclimation of hope for the children of their children.
Immigrant men and women of exceptional resolve able to manifest their inner spirituality in physical granite, brick, and mortar that still speak to us today: This is St George, the legacy of a downtrodden generation; a gift to prosperity; a mark on the annals of a people who struggled, suffered, and overcame.
But today, the doors of St George of Shenandoah are closed. Not because parishioners are unable to financially maintain their church, but because church administrators refused to sign building renovation contracts and direct parish funds to enable vital maintenance to be done. Even when these repairs to stonework were urged by structural engineers as early as 2003, only after pieces of stone façade began to fall in 2006 did church administrators take action: not to repair but to lock the doors to the faithful.
Too often we see a pattern in many localities of church closings, particularly of churches with strong ethnic traditions. But, when parishioners are able to financially support their church, what can be the explanation?
Today in corporate American, consolidation is viewed as an optimal strategy to better enhance the bottom line, or to change red to black the numbers in an accounting audit. We live in a climate where downsizing, out-sourcing, and offering lowest wages with fewest benefits are viewed as smart administration. Companies that best follow these strategies are rewarded on Wall Street. In this business environment the impact of these decisions on communities and people are held as secondary. We live in a society where preserving and renovating are considered out-dated thinking; we dispose and discard because it is more expedient and cost-effective.
The Church in the United States faces a financial crisis. There are no easy solutions and the burden of resolving these problems must weigh heavily on our leaders.
Therefore, we ask all to pray for our bishops and pastors that their judgments are not seduced by secular economic models that value bottom-line ledger statements over spiritual welfare, community, and tradition. Our bishops and pastors need to see a financial crisis as temporal but our churches as “for all time.” Once a church like St George is lost, it is lost forever. Pray that our bishops and pastors remember there are no saints we honor who closed churches.
Pray for us, the Friends of St George, that to preserve our house of worship we never fail to see in our bishop and pastor the image of Christ and that our actions are guided by humility and love.
Therefore, in humility, we remind our bishops and pastors that in the spring of 1206, outside the poor village of San Damiano a small, decaying road-side church stood. A cross still hung over the altar of that church and before it a young man gazed; a youth much spoiled by his father’s wealth. Then as this young man began to pray, he heard a voice from the cross “don’t you see that my house has collapsed? Go and repair it for me.”
Now in the spring of 2006, in the poor town of Shenandoah, a mighty, but recently neglected church stands. There is also a cross over the altar. Do you believe, 800 hundred years later virtually to the month, a voice from that cross would now say: sell-off my assets, salvage what you can, consolidate, tell the people to accept new realities? Do time and current secular economic trends change the words from the cross?
Therefore we pray for our bishops and pastors to reflect on the meaning and timelessness of the words of our Lord himself to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Don’t you see that my house has collapsed? Go and repair it for me.”
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