25 May 2010

Re-purposing of old church building combats 'real-estate Disney World' mentality

I stood in the back of St. Joseph's Catholic Church with my parents, a 9-year-old in a pair of grey slacks, a navy blazer and, insult to injury, a tie.

As we started down the blaze orange carpet heading towards the altar, I could feel hundreds of eyes on me, and I felt like I was going to melt into my penny loafers. I fought the rising panic.

“Just look holy, look up at Heaven,” I repeated multiple times to myself, trying to remember to put one foot in front of the other. I felt a full foot shorter by the time I reached the front of the church, and stared up at Father Francis Roach’s benevolently bespectacled face before accepting my First Communion. My walk up to the front had been the hard part; I'd inadvertently learned what it must like to be a bullfighter.

Twenty-one years later, I stared down at the same piece of ground I’d trembled on years earlier while doing a story on the church becoming an arts center. The orange carpet was gone, uncovering old black-and-red tiles I had never known were there. The whole floor was much the same, stripped of pews and carpet left with bare wood floors worn thin by the constant traffic of dress shoes and intentions. It was as if the workmen had literally peeled off the decades with each layer of flooring removed.

My professors in journalism school always stressed the need for detachment with the stories I cover and the people I interact with. Most of the time, I completely agree that this is necessary, but when it comes to St. Joe's, it’s hard to completely free myself from part of what formed me. I went to its school, had my first communion there and spent nearly every Sunday morning of my childhood in its pews, pretending desperately that I was someplace else.

Still, when the church moved to a new building in 2002, I felt I’d lost something. I felt I’d lost a comforting place that had never changed, some idyllic reflecting pool in the midst of life’s sometimes-chaotic whitewater rapids. The new St. Joe's building was beautiful and well made, sure, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about being around so much living history that made the messages I heard somehow resound a little deeper.

I'm glad I've been able to return to both the school and the church in this career to document the changes taking place. After years of living in the suburbs, I've determined that "heritage" is something that gets destroyed in the process of expansion, with old farmhouses being churned into the ground to make room for more strip malls that will become blight 20 years down the road.

Later, when people share the assumption that something of value had been lost with the torn-down farmhouse, clever development companies come in and make exorbitantly expensive idealized versions of what once was, coating them in pleasant little names like "Heritage Oakes." It's a real-estate version of Disney World, contributing to the nonsense idea of some sort of mythical small town America that has never existed outside the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalog. It's Lake Wobegon at a higher price point.

In the case of the old St. Joe's building, it's good to see that people sometimes have enough foresight to hang on to their past and find a way to carry it into the future. And at a price tag that everyone can afford.

Walking towards the entrance, I looked town and saw a scrap of familiar blue carpet in a trash pile. I remembered the shade well. My family and I had gone on vacation in the summer of 1991, and when we returned, the blaze orange carpet was gone, replaced with a resplendent shade of royal blue. It sounds silly now, but the change excited me, and made the old church look somehow more regal.

"Looks like you've found something for your scrapbook," my guide said, smiling.

Think of it like a molting from a snake, or a cocoon from a butterfly – it's the shedding of a past life on the way to a new one. It's the kind of metamorphosis I'd like to see happen more often.

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