MONG THE MOST PAINFUL spiritual experiences many Catholics suffer is the closure of their parish. This pain is especially acute for those who have invested years or decades of their lives in their community. Some even have generations of family history tied up in a parish. So devastating is the loss that for many the grieving process is akin to that of a death in the family.
But this is a cross that some bear and others do not. Each parish has a unique story and unique gifts to offer. Some are material, but the greatest asset of each parish is its people. But when a parish closes, the community is left in mourning. The psalmist states: “Send forth your Spirit and all things shall be created anew; and you shall renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104:30). Is there a promise of new life after such loss? There is no easy fix; the Holy Spirit will guide such rebirth.
HIS SCENE HAS BEEN PLAYING OUT all over the United States and many parts of the world. One such tragically sad closure is that of the Holy Trinity (German) R. C. Church in Boston’s South End. It was exceptionally unique and beautiful. Established in 1844, the current building was dedicated in 1877. The parish was closed in 2008 and the church building recently put up for sale. Serving the German community, it was also home for many years to the Traditional Latin Mass. (This is especially notable prior to Pope Benedict’s 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum on the celebration of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of 1962).
Holy Trinity was one of several churches in downtown Boston built in the nineteenth century to serve an enormous immigrant population. These edifices, many within a few short blocks of each other, are larger than most cathedrals throughout the United States. Many issues, some complex and some tragic, leave the nineteenth and twentieth century configurations of the Archdiocese hopelessly out of date and unsustainable.
UT NEW LIFE BEGINS TO BREATHE ELSEWHERE: I received a phone call from Fr. Jonathan Gaspar, Director of the Office of Divine Worship and Priest Secretary to His Eminence Seán Cardinal O’Malley. The historic organ at Holy Trinity Church, an E. & G. G. Hook, Opus 858, ca. 1877 was being removed in five days in order for it to be preserved. Before it was to be dismantled, he asked me to come in for a look and to record the instrument one last time.
The hope is that this instrument will continue to lead the people in singing God’s praises in a brand new Neo-Gothic style chapel being built by the Archdiocese near Boston’s newly developing waterfront. Although not designated as a parish, Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel will serve a great need in that location. Pending the outcome of fundraising, this organ will have an opportunity lead the Church in sacred song again.
As I began to play the forty-five rank instrument, I thought of the generations who came here to worship God. For one hundred sixty-four years, this parish nourished the faithful. Playing these last notes in this church was a sacred privilege I did not deserve.
HAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SHORT ten-minute visit tuned into nearly two hours. The organ was in shockingly good condition for having not been serviced in six years. (This is a testament to a highly robust music program that featured several ongoing choirs.) After six years, the tuning was remarkable except for some reeds, which one expects. The chests were in astoundingly good shape. One hundred thirty-seven years after it was first built, this instrument wants to sing on! It must.
Typical of the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Hook organs are its deep and rich colors. I savored the distinctively warm flutes and strings supported by beautiful 8’ foundations. The reeds were colorful, and the instrument, well balanced. Rebuilt and revoiced by Conrad Olson in the 1950’s, the instrument is highly versatile, capable of leading hymns as well as accompanying chant and choral music.
Exploring various colors, I wandered into improvisations of hymns and chants I thought fitting for a last farewell. Among them were Praise to the Lord, and For All the Saints to honor all those who came before to worship here. In Paradisum and Lux aeterna were fitting for what felt like a funeral for the organ and for this magnificent church. Finally, I share with you the very last notes I played that day, an improvisation on Ave Maris Stella. Its somewhat mournful tone is fitting. The final phrases linger on a bit too long, as I did not want to leave.
The bells in the tower, (which originate from New Orleans during the Civil War–another intriguing story) as you can hear, still work beautifully:
HOSE I MET WORKING ONSITE treated this former place of worship with reverence and dignity. They were proud of the construction from local puddingstone and granite. They went about their business with a sense of respect and awe for the sacred objects they were sadly removing.
But there is a sacred end for the sacred objects being removed: the stained glass windows, the pews, and all the woodwork that covered the walls will be re-purposed in other churches and perhaps some in the seaport chapel. The extraordinarily beautiful high altar is currently being installed at the St Joseph Cathedral in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston is receiving many of the statues and has already been using the beautiful baptismal font. Perhaps these are small but important ways to honor the countless faithful who worshipped at Holy Trinity.
R. GASPAR PLAYED A FEW LAST NOTES on the organ before we left. Then, stepping out into the bright sunlight, we knew we would never set foot inside again. He later said it felt like we were witnessing the death of a church. Its beauty went far beyond appearances; it shone as a beacon of Christ’s light for generations of worshippers. Its greatest beauty was its people. This is why it feels like a death. But will there be new life?
Perhaps this story reminds us of the frailty of the physical world, of earthly possessions. But tied up in this corporeal existence are real memories, spiritual journeys, and lives filled with joy and suffering. We are brusquely reminded that the Kingdom of God is not here. Our hope and trust is entirely with the Lord. But God does not leave us comfortless. We are sisters and brothers in the Universal Church. We are united as one in the Body of Christ and united in Christ’s love. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Suffering, pain, and loss may not be abated. But the suffering of those who carry the cross often gain greatly in wisdom. As Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, he said “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” (John: 18-19)