Where Are The Shepherds?: The Catholic Church Abandons the Hill

[This piece was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of La Amistad, newsletter of the Amistad Catholic Worker]

by Mark Colville

To the disbelief and outrage of many, the Archdiocese of Hartford has proceeded with a plan to close the last Catholic parish located New Haven’s Hill Section, our beloved Sacred Heart on Columbus Avenue.  The Hill is the largest, poorest and most child-populated neighborhood in our city. Sacred Heart’s closing, hastily pushed through on September 19th after Archbishop Mansell abruptly abandoned a parishioner-led process of transition, has left the Amistad Catholic Worker as the lone organized Catholic ministerial presence here- and the only place within the residential confines of the Hill where Mass is celebrated.

Sacred Heart is 133 years old. It’s temple is surrounded by three similarly large buildings- the parish school, convent (now the parish center) and rectory- and together with a playground and parking area, the complex takes up an entire city block.  A cavernous structure, it was built, obviously, during a time when the Church, the nation and the economy were different.  In those days, churches like this sprang up as fortresses for the defense and nurturing of ethnic minorities newly arrived in the country.  They were at one and the same time the immigrant community’s statement: “We are here”, and the institutional church’s reply: “You are welcome here”.   As impractical as they might appear to us today- expensive to maintain, impossible to heat or cool, and not even particularly suited interiorly for a post-Vatican II style of worship- churches like Sacred Heart have nevertheless stood in places like the Hill through parts of three centuries and continued to shout the confident refrain that their original builders first intended: GOD IS GREAT, AND GOD IS WITH US!

Nearly a century and a half later, immigrants have not stopped coming to the Hill, and ours at Sacred Heart are feeling acutely abandoned by the Archbishop’s actions.  At least half of our Latino and Haitian worshippers are former parishioners from St. Peter’s a mile away on Kimberly Avenue, which was torn down ten years ago, and they remember being promised then by Archbishop Cronin that Sacred Heart was to be their home forever, and would never be closed.  When the property and interior furnishings of St. Peter’s were sold, all but a small fraction of more than one-and-a-half million dollars went to the Archdiocese. (This fact is vigorously disputed by archdiocesan representatives, who claim this money was paid back by way of subsidies to Sacred Heart over the next several years.  But that justification essentially amounts to creative bookkeeping, as many poor parishes- more than a few non-poor ones- receive subsidies to make ends meet without having their land and buildings sold off.)  The reality is that bulk of that money did not follow St. Peter’s parishioners to Sacred Heart, and consequently less than a decade later, we were yet again being told that our buildings have fallen into neglect, they are structurally unsound, and their upkeep is no longer affordable.

But it is not even the perception of broken promises that discourages our people, as much as the growing knowledge that the leadership of our archdiocese has no plan, no priority, no intentional commitment that will ensure the survival or growth of the Catholic community in the Hill.  In short, after thirty years of seeing predominantly-immigrant parishes in the Hill closed, one by one at a pace of more than one per decade, it seems to most here that the Archdiocese is not closing another building- that might be understandable, if painful- but  phasing out a community.  It had been about twenty years since there was any diocesan clergy staffing at Sacred Heart; truth be told, it is hard to even find a diocesan priest in the Hartford Archdiocese who wants to work in an urban parish today. The Hispanic Apostolate office, the clergy-led body which used to effectively guide planning and policy (and no less importantly, raise a voice and fight for the rights of poor and immigrant Catholics) for thousands of urban faithful here, no longer exists. In meetings with Archbishop Mansell and other administrators (meetings I attended as a member of Sacred Heart’s parish council), it was communicated in not-so-subtle terms to Sacred Heart’s lay leadership that our church has become a great burden to the rest of the Archdiocese, which presumably is otherwise filled with solvent, un-subsidized parishes that can “pay their own way”.  As I sat in those meetings, a deep sadness struck with the realization that there was no one in the room wearing a Roman collar who would dispute those claims or address the issues at hand from the perspective of the poor.  The economics of the Gospel were not of any particular importance there.  Instead we were surrounded by a bishop, four priests and an accountant, all of whom were essentially taking up the cause of the accountant.

Our friend the prophet, Phil Berrigan- a man who, though quite capable of understatement, was not often considered it’s staunchest advocate-  used to lament that one of the Church’s biggest problems is that it’s bishops and pastors are institutionally trained to become very effective managers of property and assets… not shepherds.  In the Archdiocese of Hartford today, this does not seem too harsh a judgement.  The Church here, whose home is a state with among the greatest disparities between wealth and poverty in the nation, has become increasingly, frightfully, suburbanized. As urban neighborhood parishes are closed, there is no substantive effort to replace their ministerial and communal presence with anything, nor to reinvest the money saved into the areas abandoned. Despite countless papal pronouncements on the treasure of cultural diversity in the Church and Her insistence on the welcome and defense of the immigrant, immigrant community here has been allowed to become the most vastly under-served of all our people.  This, in a time when  our cities have seen a huge influx of families , most of them fragmented, undocumented, Catholic, and shepherdless. (Apart from a notable exception or two, such as St. Rose of Lima in Fair Haven and it’s courageous pastor, Fr. Jim Manship, the situation is truly scandalous.)  There appears to be no imagination, no cognitive or spiritual effort whatsoever applied toward the conception of some alternative to the traditional city parish with it’s unsustainable physical plant, or the economic model in which every parish in the archdiocese is essentially it’s own closed system.  Why, for instance, could there not be an initiative toward small neighborhood-based Catholic chapels in our inner cities, combined with community centers and/or houses of hospitality similar to the Catholic Worker?  Why not “yoke” every parish in the archdiocese whose weekly collections exceed a determined median level, with a struggling low-income Catholic community?

How is it, some justly ask, that in these times we have parishes that can spend half a million dollars on an elevator or an organ? How can it be that Yale builds a $25 million Catholic center two miles away, while a 133-year-old church, no less a bastion of neighborhood stability than a vital spiritual home, located in the heart of where our Catholic population is growing the most and suffering the most, is allowed to close?

Sadly, it has reached a point where the Church’s mission among the poor in our state is more and more taking the form of emergency aid rather than it’s proper tasks of spiritual formation, family support and accompaniment, community organizing, justice advocacy and shepherding the people of God.  In denial of our own teachings, we are becoming more and more content with giving the poor the crumbs which fall from the plate rather than a seat of honor at the table. St. Paul would tell us that this endangers the health of the whole body (I Corinthians 12:24-26).  And who could argue with such an assessment? Is there not some connection to be made between this failure to live out our mission, and the fact that the young and middle-aged are leaving our churches in droves?

Meanwhile, Catholics in the Hill are once again left to feel devalued and displaced, questioning whether our membership in that Body of Christ will ever be truly recognized as the treasure it is.  We are, today more than ever, “like sheep without a shepherd.”

1 Comment

Filed under La Amistad Fall/Winter 2009, La Amistad Newsletter

One response to “Where Are The Shepherds?: The Catholic Church Abandons the Hill

  1. Mary Denos

    The neglect and closing of the inner city churches is tragic. Thousands of hungry souls cannot eat at the table of Christ, because it is inconvenient or financially imprudent to keep the large churches open.
    Has anyone ever seen Mary heart in Meriden? It is a chapel connected to a Catholic bookstore, which provides daily Mass and confession and spiritual advisce. That might be a model, but there is still the issue of safety.
    would young people volunteer their time to keep the older generation safe in the crumbling city? Would brave priests say Mass there and could the tabernacle be kept safe? The people need worship like food, and these questions need to be answered, not ignored!

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