Friday, October 22, 2010

Selling St. Vincent's

The church is for sale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been what they call a “practicing Catholic” but a recent tour of the website of my hometown newspaper in Corning N.Y. produced a startling news item.

St. Vincent de Paul’s, the Roman Catholic church, school, rectory and convent that pretty much defined the first part of my life, is on the block, about to be sold to a developer.

Senior housing. Sale price, they say, is about $350,000. It will likely be some years in the making or unmaking, but there will be no going back.

Growing up, there were three Roman Catholic churches and the three Catholic schools in a town that probably never got larger than 20,000 people.

St. Vincent’s was within easy walking distance of our house. My maternal grandparents lived within sight of it, on Onondaga St. My grandfather, Paul Lovette, spent large chunks of his retirement pulling weeds from the lush lawn that surrounded the church. It was for him an act of faith.

My sister Maribeth and I would often walk the block to our grandparents’ house for lunch on a school day, a tableau worthy of a TV sitcom in the lower-middle-class America of the early 1960s. And a very sweet memory.

I was an altar boy from the 5th grade through my freshman year of high school, back in the days when the Latin Mass was in vogue.

I can recite some of those prayers in Latin, in the same way I can still smell the incense that pervaded the Lenten services and Midnight Mass on Christmas and the funerals, including the funerals of both my parents.

Joe and Betty Daley were married in St. Vincent’s after World War II. When the service was over, the wedding party and the congregation walked to the reception in the back yard on Onondaga St.

There’s a part of all this that mystifies me and I guess it’s my reaction – or overreaction – to the latest news.

The demographics of Corning have been changing for decades and the population has fallen. It was below 11,000 in the 2000 census.

Many of the kids who coped with Sister Domenica in the 5th grade and Sister Paul in the 6th grade, who sold candy bars and magazines and Easter seals to raise money for the parish, as I did, are grandparents now.

There are fewer people in the town, fewer people in the churches. In some ways it’s simply the sociological math.

The “parochial” school where I spent eight years has been shuttered for many years. The Sisters of Mercy are mostly gone, as are the priests.

It may sound odd in this era to say that we liked the priests. They came to the house; they showed up at the hospital with a kind word and some priestly reassurance.

They knew about you and your people, your grandfather who was a railroad engineer and your other grandfather, the one who pulled the dandelions.

They remembered names, asked how you were doing in school, were kind and respectful to the old women who showed up alone in the cold for the 6 a.m. Mass. They were useful. As far as I can tell, they are all but extinct.

Some years ago the three Corning churches (St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s were the others) and the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in nearby Painted Post merged into what became known as All Saints Parish.

From a distance it seemed a poor resolution. I saw it as a loss of cultural and community identity, papered over by a generic designation - “All Saints Parish” - that seemed drawn up by a committee.

But nobody asked me, which was fair enough as I was gone from both Corning and the church.

St. Patrick’s was sold outright. Sunday Mass was performed on a rotating basis. The weekday Mass - there were two every morning at 6 and 7 at St. Vincent’s when I was growing up - kept the altar boy crew busy. Nowadays Mass is a Sunday-only affair.

I read the melancholy news stories in the Corning paper, with angry parishioners and equivocating clergy. I see the property described as a “campus” and I think, well, that’s real estate talking. I think someone has a fundamental misunderstanding of what went on there on Dodge Ave. for the better part of a century.

I think that I am a hopeless romantic, getting older, nostalgic about a religion I abandoned at 17. And I think that I was lucky.

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