Christ the King Chapel at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., is seen under construction Aug. 22, 2020. The chapel, which will seat 760 people, will have 114 stained glass windows and a 116-foot-tall Gothic tower. It is scheduled to be dedicated in Spring 2022. (CNS photo/Ann M. Augherton, Catholic Herald)

When Parishioners Are Anxious over New Church Construction

How to approach concerns and mixed emotions when moving day is on its way

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What follows depicts a pastor’s dilemma with a group of longtime parishioners anxious about moving into a new church.

Most passersby can tell that the Catholic church being built is going to dominate the countryside. Carefully watching the same construction, the parish pastor believes that this seven-year project is coming to an end. A couple of long stretches of good weather and, dependent on the bishop’s availability, the dedication ceremony and first Mass can be scheduled. No more surveys, critical construction decisions, seemingly constant meetings and reports. The parish will have a new church and, on the surface, things are looking good.

The location seems ideal, a hillside just on the edge of town with a convenient access road. A parishioner donated the land and this generous donation led to a building campaign a few years later. For the most part, parish members have been positive, excited and supportive about the new church. So many have given their time and talent without which the project would not have been possible. Having received the land as a gift, the pastor thinks it fortunate that the parish did not have to relocate out of the old church while the new one was being built. No one cherished the idea of attending Mass for a year in a gymnasium. Initially, the old building will be used as a chapel for the nearby Catholic school, but the long-term status is uncertain given the condition of the building.

The pastor is satisfied that every parish member has been given the opportunity to provide input, discern and pray about this important project. Unfortunately, he knows of a small number, mostly among the longtime members, who are stressed about moving out of the existing church. It is, to coin a phrase, part of their DNA; the situation with these folks is awkward at best.

Parish History

The old church dates back to the late 1860s, literally built in the era of the horse and buggy. Some current members have heard stories and read family chronicles describing how their ancestors helped build the present church. Those stories recall the difficulties and sacrifices the first parishioners encountered while raising a church for God’s glory. Pictures abound of horse-drawn trailers being loaded with construction materials at the nearby train station and more show church construction in progress.

The well-used edifice these people built by hand is today in dire need of extensive repairs and expansion, neither of which can be done cost-effectively. The wiring is antiquated, walls are cracked, there are no interior bathrooms or water fountains, no gathering area or parish hall, no attached offices or multipurpose spaces; the tiny room used for confessions on Saturday serves as a cry room during Mass and available parking is scattered. The roof, repeatedly patched, needs replacing. The pews barely hold the Mass attendees even with the offering of four liturgies every weekend, and there is no way to increase the seating.

When the first church was built, the population of the town was about 1,000, while today it will soon exceed 30,000 with continued near-term growth expected. It appears that the only reasons for not supporting a new church are either cost, fear of change or connections to the past. Among those hesitant to move, the cost is not the concern.

Parishioner Concerns and Fears

When parishioners, especially older parishioners, realize that changes to Church or parish norms are on the horizon, they immediately think of the sweeping changes following the Second Vatican Council. Suddenly the Church they had known since childhood seems very different. Certain Mass reforms and revision of traditional practices served to upset the certitude, the rhythm of church life they had always known. That experience, coupled with moving into a new church building, worries some of the faithful.

The members reluctant to move are not necessarily shortsighted or opposed to progress. They know full well the condition of the old church as they are there week after week. But this building is a visible symbol of their faith. It is open every day from the morning Angelus to the evening Angelus. The worried parishioners wonder if that will be the case at the new church or, like other churches, will it be locked once daily Mass is over. Many are not eager to give up a lifetime of going to Mass in a familiar neighborhood in favor of that location on the edge of town. The well-intentioned renderings, models and explanations of how the new facility is expected to look have done little to assuage these thoughts. Most everyone expects the new location to spur an increase in overall parish membership and some fear that such growth will lead to an unintended distancing among the faithful (no longer would it be a close-knit parish).

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Part of Catholic Identity

“The decision-making process and the parish education component that are part of the building experience can assist the parish and its individual members to deepen their sense of Catholic identity. This identity is shaped by the history of the particular parish, by its relationship to other parishes in the local Church known as the diocese, and by its relationship within the communion of local Churches known as the Roman Catholic Church.”

— “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship,” Preface, No. 2

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The parish church has been the centerpiece of their lives. It is more than a place for the faithful to come praising almighty God and receive the sacraments, but is a place they gather in times of crises. Here parishioners hastened on Dec 7, 1941, likewise on 9/11, and also when the Columbia astronauts perished during reentry. Shocked by such events, uncertain as to how to react, the faithful came to the parish church to pray for the souls that had been lost and for God’s merciful comfort and guidance.

Generations of families, communities of people in different eras, have congregated and prayed on the site of the present church. Many current members were baptized, confirmed, received their first Communion, were married, made all their confessions and expect to receive the Mass of Christian burial here. More than 100 Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday Masses, thousands of rosaries and First Friday devotions, as well as uncountable hours of Eucharistic adoration, took place in this building. Hundreds of altar boys and girls served nine different pastors throughout the years. No one knows how many people walked into the church on a winter or summer afternoon and sought the solace, love and wonder of God in the Blessed Sacrament. No one knows how many received the body and blood of Christ during holy Communion or witnessed the morning sun shining through the regal stained-glass windows. No one knows how many souls have been converted in this holy edifice. The faces of all those who marched in the Corpus Christi processions and walked the Stations of the Cross may be forgotten, but their love of God and the Catholic Faith live on. Lives have been shaped inside those sacred walls; somehow, someway the old church speaks to the heart. It stands like a guiding beacon, a footstool to Jesus.

Reality

While these memories, concerns and worries exist, there is recognition even among those not eager to move that Our Lord, Jesus, cannot be held by any one building. For the parish to continue to effectively spread the Gospel and serve the Catholic community, a new church is inevitable.

Trying to expand the existing structure is just not realistic. The pastor senses that some of his flock regard the new church building as a place that will be filled with sumptuous surroundings, unlike the noble simplicity to which they have been accustomed.

While the term sumptuous is too severe, the parish’s shepherd makes no apologies for the planned interior and exterior beauty of the building. He recollects words from the USCCB, Built of Living Stones: “The building itself becomes a sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven.”

In more than one purposeful homily, the priest has noted that no matter the church location, whether the building is old or new, whether it is on Maple Street or Broadway, the people, not the building, are the Church. In those same homilies, he exhorts every member to create a parish atmosphere where, by the grace of God, spiritual poverty can never exist. He wants his flock to know that at this new site, with more space and comfort (and indoor plumbing), the Mass will remain at the center of worship; the church is being designed for an encounter with God.

Indeed, the unique elegance, beauty and simplicity prevalent in the old church cannot be transferred a few miles up the road. But the people that are the Church, people that are the parish, have been graced with the enduring, sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, and they can bring that Spirit into this new place conceived for God’s glory. As to the loss of relationships and personal contact, a new church will likely experience more Catholics, even attract more faith inquirers, eager to contribute their God-given gifts and join the many traditional religious ministries that anchor parish life.

Pastor’s Challenge

The parish pastor, who thought the biggest hurdles of building a new church were behind him, has a continuing challenge on his hands. He has a new church building nearing completion and a parish community that dates back nearly 150 years. Now he must lead that community of faithful parishioners not only on a physical move up the road but also on a spiritual journey into a new building, a new house of God. Some remain hesitant.

There is no book the pastor can access that describes the best way to handle this situation; there was nothing in the seminary, no schooling preparing him on how to inspire these good but anxious parishioners. It is easy enough to say “you can’t please everyone” or “get over it.”

But what’s important to the pastor is that every member of his flock, the souls in his care, recognize they are being called to create a new place of worship with increased opportunities to proclaim the Gospel, to serve God in holiness — that is, a sacred place that will stand for another hundred plus years and serve generations yet to come.

He will seek the solace of the Holy Spirit and perhaps ask the parishioners to join him in this prayer written by St. Brendan the Navigator (484-577): “Help me journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give me faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you.”

When the first parish church was dedicated, the proud members knew the time would come when a new house of worship would be necessary to continue the sacred mission they had begun. That day has arrived.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.

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The Gospel Palaces’

St. John Henry Newman delivered a sermon called “The Gospel Palaces” that reflects on churches built by people looking forward: “All ye who take part in the building of a Church, know that you have been admitted to the truest symbol of God’s eternity. You have built what may be destined to have no end but in Christ’s coming. Cast your thoughts back on the time when our ancient buildings were first reared. Consider the churches all around us; how many generations have passed since stone was put upon stone till the whole edifice was finished! The first movers and instruments of its erection, the minds that planned it, and the limbs that wrought at it, the pious hands that contributed to it, and the holy lips that consecrated it, have long, long ago been taken away; yet we benefit by their good deed. Does it not seem a very strange thing that we should be fed, and lodged, and clothed in spiritual things, by persons we never saw or heard of, and who never saw us, or could think of us, hundreds of years ago? … What a privilege thus to be immediately interested in the deeds of our forefathers! and what a call on us, in like manner, to reach out our own hands towards our posterity! Freely we have received; let us freely give. Let us not be slack to do what our fathers have done; to do a work, the fruits of which we cannot see, because they are too vast to be seen” (Nov. 13, 1836).

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