Saturday, October 13, 2007


I subscribe to several automatic enewsletters. One of the best is called “Sightings” and comes from the Martin Marty Center, part of the University of Chicago Divinity School, which I attended 1978 to 1982. My MA in Religious Studies is from there. The writer this time was Elizabeth Blasius, who studies historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is an archivist at the Chicago Cultural Center. She was talking about the problem of whether to restore St. Boniface church. She says, “...cats and pigeons know it intimately. The giant shipwreck of a building silently overlooks its rapidly changing West Town neighborhood, both relic and fixture among increasingly desirable real estate. Enormous rose windows are bandaged by plywood; doorways are stuffed with concrete blocks; bricks shift and spall from top to bottom. The building is mummified, shrouded by chain link fence, bejeweled with red and white signs warning "Private Property—No Trespassing." The bell towers and rooflines teem with life; flocks of birds and tufts of weeds feed off the structure like a giant coral reef.

“This bold-shouldered Romanesque skeleton, designed in 1896 and dedicated in 1904, was once a place where thousands of turn-of-the-century German-Americans (in 1900, one in four Chicagoans was a German immigrant) came to worship.

When people talk about religion, they often talk about theology. A few will talk about community or even ethnicity. But hardly anyone talks about what an anthropologist would call “material culture.” Yet a building can be so much beloved. And the other things, too: the chalices and candlesticks, a particular hymnal, the carving on a pulpit.

I’m working my way through another English mystery series, “Waking the Dead.” I admit that part of the attraction of this genre is the architecture and the scenery. After the pilot I was left cold and almost dumped the rest off my Netflix queue, but the second installment was pretty good. This third one, called “The Blind Begger,” was excellent, both in story and presentation. It began with a man singing an Irish song in a bar -- oh, I can’t resist such a thing! It’s nearly religious to hear a healthy full-grown man really reach out in a beautiful voice! (It was one of the things I loved about the ministry, those men’s voices. When at the General Assembly the ministers, almost all male in those days, rose and pealed out “Rank by rank again we stand...” it was all I could do to keep from crying.) Much of the rest of the story took place in a Catholic church where they’d ripped up the floor in the crypt and found a modern body. I mean, the place had been an historic set of tombs in a pre-existing ancient church, but they had been removed and a person had been buried there twenty years earlier. I won’t put a spoiler in here. I’m not talking about the movie, so much as the setting anyway.

Across from Meadville/Lombard was Von Ogden Vogt’s idea of a perfect Unitarian church -- built as a replica of a European Catholic cathedral except that all the Catholic iconography had been replaced by mozaic and carved motifs of what at that time were triumphs of modern science: steam engines, aeroplanes, the glass beakers of a chem lab and so on. A niche held a statue of Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen. That is, Von Ogden Vogt was perfectly willing to throw the theology overboard, but he couldn’t bear to jettison the material culture. If he could have found a way to justify incense and bells, he probably would have. By the time I was supposed to be graduating and finishing up my senior thesis, the minister was Duke Gray, equally attached to Church of England vespers which seemed to fit the building.

I like churches in general, of all kinds, but as a matter of doctrine prefer small plain churches that don’t distract from the worship. So I say -- but the truth is that I’m also attracted to the grand, historic, fabulously designed and executed buildings of well-established religions. Not that I wanted to be the minister of such a church, since I know quite well that it would mean putting enormous effort into maintaining and funding it. The budgets of places like Notre Dame or Westminster Cathedral must be formidable, to saying nothing of the kind of crew it would take to maintain simple cleanliness. Anyway, Unitarians subscribe to the experimental, the individual, the Frank Lloyd Wright design.

Still, truth be told, part of my attraction to the U of Chicago was the glamour of stone quads with gargoyles, the Anglophilia of ringing bell changes in church towers, and the fine polished wood and stained glass of the two University places of worship. Bond Chapel was a small private space where the lecturn was a brass eagle and the worshipers were faculty, their family, and students. Rockefeller Chapel was a huge formal public space hosting, ceremonies such as graduation when the faculty approached in procession in colorful robes with the same roots in European academic robes as many ministers’ preaching gowns.

Blasius, who is not a religious academic, is speaking of the problem of what to do with formerly sacred spaces, constructed with great care and sacrifice and -- even in disrepair -- carrying enormous holiness and symbolism. There is a counter-culture fashion of making them into dance halls. In Helena there is one converted into a home. Sometimes they become excellent artist’s studios. But a huge old space like St. Boniface is unmanageable.

The parallel with the institutions and theologies of those old religions pulled along from one continent to another through century after century of change -- all the while resisting change and demanding resources -- is undeniable. Many of the ideas are so damaged by the pigeons and cats and weeds of contemporary science and attitudes that they are probably un-saveable in the long run. Yet we can’t help loving them, even in our media fantasies. A well-loved place, human voices lifted in song, light slanting through space, beautiful surfaces and costly art -- one can’t help responding. I guess the question is about what comes next.

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