Thursday, May 19, 2011

A sign of the times: Beautiful old churches used for secular purposes

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington, DC

One of the saddest things to experience is the closing of some of our oldest and most beautiful Catholic Churches. These older churches are some of our most magnificent in terms of architecture, theology and faith coming together. Most of these beautiful structures which are closed have succumbed to the wrecking ball. But some of them live in strange and often painful ways, becoming performing arts centers, condominiums, restaurants, and other various secular purposes.

I recently ran across a couple of “then and now” videos that struck me to the heart with sadness.

The first video below is from 1944, a Solemn High Mass in St. Vibiana’s Church in Los Angeles. The Church is packed to the rafters with people at a Christmas Midnight Mass. The choir sings, the incense rises, and clergy pray in Latin and Greek. The scene closes with people flocking to the altar rail for Holy Communion.

The second video shows St. Vibiana’s today (now called “The Vibiana”). It is now a performing arts center and a marketplace. The video shows the vendors along the interior selling wine and scarves and other such things. The high altar where God was once worshiped, and which was home to the Blessed Sacrament, looms in the background, now a mere backdrop for shoppers, dancers, and actors. The confessionals, where once absolution was granted and mercy celebrated, are now storage closets.


The story of St. Vibana’s is perhaps more well known than most, for it was once the Cathedral Church of Los Angeles. Built in 1876, it was damaged by an earthquake in 1994. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had long considered the building (which seated 1200) too small for its needs and had wanted to build a new Cathedral. Hence it was decided to tear the damaged building down. But a coalition of Catholics and preservationists fought to save the building, and the City took possession of it. Meanwhile the Archdiocese went on with plans to build the current, new Cathedral, dedicated in 2002. Eventually “The Vibiana” was sold to a private developer who now rents it for various functions.

This same story is at work in other cities too where beautiful, old Churches, now have secular uses. At some level, one can rejoice that the wreckers ball did not swing. But at another level it is troubling to see once sacred buildings used in this manner, and there is the thought that maybe the total loss would have been more dignified.

I don’t have simple answers. We have discussed before the severe decline in Mass attendance and other demographic shifts. But after all the discussions, what it ultimately what it means is shown in video 2 below. Granted, St Vibiana’s closed for reasons other than low Mass attendance, but in other cities it islow attendance that is the driving force behind the closings.

A tale of two videos: then and now. What do you think? Has St. Vibiana’s survived now that she is just “The Vibiaba?” Or is this a fate worse than death? What uses have you seen of some the surviving, but closed churches in other cities?

Photo Credit: St Vibiana 1885 from City of Los Angeles Landmarks Page
Video 1: St Vibiana’s 1944:
Video 2: “The Vibiana” 2011

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