Like many folks locally, I was saddened to wake a few Sundays ago to news that an overnight fire had claimed First Presbyterian Church in Girard, the handsome, brick structure with the twin faces that had anchored the corner of East Main and Church streets for over 125 years. While my immediate concerns were for First Presbyterian’s congregants, however, I couldn’t help thinking about another faith community, St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton, Ill., that had likewise lost its place of worship to a fire about a decade ago. I’d been hired by the parish to assist in its efforts to rebuild, though early on, my energies were directed mostly at helping parishioners overcome the emotional trauma of having lost a building they referred to as “home.”
What I took from my experience in Wheaton, where a gleaming, new Catholic church stands on the site of its predecessor, gives me hope for the future of our neighbors in Girard and reminds me of what we can all learn from their story:
1. Places Matter
Buildings, like people, grow dear to us. We invest them with meaning and memory, with affection, frankly, those parts of ourselves best entrusted to the durability of steel and stone. And when they vanish from our midst by natural means or some wrecking-ball stroke of shortsightedness, it’s good that we should mark their passing. They will never return as we remember them, which is part of what makes them dear.
2. Our Attachment to Place Reflects Our Humanity
It says something about our uniquely human attachment to place that locals still lament the extraction of the Commerce Building from downtown Erie’s skyline in the late 1980s. It’s telling, too, that we’re just getting used to imagining nearby Cambridge Springs without a Riverside Inn and have never gotten over the senseless vandalism a few years back that robbed us of the old Gudgeonville Bridge. The pain we feel at the loss of these structures, though deep and real, is something we might nevertheless want to abide — at least as motivation to look up occasionally from the iPhone versions of reality that lately absorb us.
3. Buildings Rise as Surely as They Fall
Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan, architects and city planners were already ruminating on what form their replacement might take. We human beings abhor a vacuum, after all. We are a race of builders — homo faber according to one fancy, anthropological tag — that erects structures at a scale commensurate with its dreams. (Consider the grandeur of those medieval cathedrals that pointed people to a place beyond the clouds, or the handful of Saturn V rockets assembled by NASA in the 1960s and ‘70s that actually put them there.)
4. We Live Beneath the Same Ceiling
It’s no coincidence that the ceilings we suspend above our heads take their name from an ancient word for “sky” (L. caelum), and that, in the language of sacred architecture, the vaulted ceiling under which the people of First Presbyterian Church were accustomed to praying working as perfectly good shorthand for “heaven” (L. coelum). None of this need matter, of course, for us to feel solidarity with our friends from Girard. What the outpouring of support for the church has already proven, in fact, is that we are a community attuned to the fact that we live together beneath a single canopy, a tiny swath of heaven on the banks of Lake Erie that dispenses both joy and sorrow and makes us custodians of each other. Despite the painfulness of their current situation, my hunch is that some First Presbyterians have already begun picturing what the “someday sanctuary” bound to rise from their midst will look like. It’s natural for people in the regular business of death and resurrection to behave this way, and to find, even in the charred remains of their past, sufficient reason to believe in a future too remarkable not to be shared with the rest of us.
Michael DeSanctis, Ph.D., is a professor of fine arts, pastoral studies and theology at Gannon University.
MICHAEL E. DESANCTIS