Tuesday, October 30, 2018

St. Anne's in Fall River set to close.

From time to time, I write here about church happenings in the area where I grew up. Sadly, this often involves news of church closings, like that of New Bedford's St. John the Baptist Church in 2012. As the latest in a sad series, earlier this month the Diocese of Fall River announced the imminent closing of St. Anne's Church in Fall River. Founded in 1869 to serve French Canadian immigrants, St. Anne's is well-known locally thanks to its imposing gray marble Byzantine Revival church building. The last parish in the diocese to offer Sunday Mass in French - which continued until the early 2000s - St. Anne's also drew people from across the SouthCoast with Masses offered three times every weekday in its spacious crypt along with generous confession times. For decades, the parish was staffed by Dominican Friars from Quebec; though the Dominicans formally gave the parish up to the diocese in 1978, the last Dominican at St. Anne's, Father Pierre Lachance, remained in Fall River until his death in 2006 (I remember seeing him, during his final years, sitting in a small office he kept in the crypt of the church).

The closing of the parish is a serious blow not only to parishioners but to many in the city and region; as one Fall River resident wrote in a letter to the local newspaper, "St. Anne's means as much to the people of this city as Notre Dame Cathedral means to the people of Paris." The reasons behind the decision to close the parish are tied to economic realities and changing demographics. The upper church has already been closed for several years due to structural issues that call for costly repairs (the cost and extent of the work needed is a matter of some debate, with an architect involved in assessing the condition of the church disputing figures presented by the diocese). Demographic problems are perhaps more intractable. Father Thomas Kocik, the former administrator of the parish, offered the following comments on the situation:
I was administrator of St Anne's for nearly two years (2012-14). From the perspective of demographics and economics, St Anne's has not been a viable parish for years. It has long relied on non-parishioners for most of the income received from weddings and funerals. The average Sunday Mass count for November 2012 was 511; were it not for the Sunday evening Mass (attended mostly by outsiders) it would have been 143. And while revenue from the votive candles in the shrine kept the parish afloat (utility bills were paid), a great deal of money was owed to the Diocese for insurance and pensions. Even if the parish had all the money needed to repair the upper church, for how much longer could the bishop assign a severely limited number of priests to keep alive old parishes as shrines? The problem is not just lack of funds but lack of people.

I am heartsick over this, and cannot help wondering what could have been had my efforts to attract more souls been given more time to bear fruit. The key to a promising future, I believed (and still believe), has to do with my happiest memory from my time there: the Solemn Mass in the older, traditional Roman Rite which I celebrated one Sunday in October 2013. The event was widely publicized and drew hundreds of people from far and wide (including clergy and seminarians from Boston and Providence). Visitors who "stumbled in" upon the Mass stayed 'til the end. "Can we have this every Sunday?" asked more than a few people who were deeply impressed by the beauty, the mystery, the profound sense of the sacred conveyed by this ancient form of worship (which, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, has become more widely available). But we weren’t ready to do that on a regular basis, because the traditional Latin Mass in its solemn form requires not only a priest but also a deacon and subdeacon, a choir competent in Gregorian chant, and several well-trained altar servers. "We're not there yet, but give me time," I promised. A few months later, without any advance notice, the bishop (George W. Coleman at the time) ended my charge of the parish.
To Father Kocik's point, some have urged that St. Anne's should be given to a religious community dedicated to the Usus Antiquior, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King, two groups with a track record of saving old and beautiful churches that were menaced by possible closings by giving them a new lease on life as parishes offering the traditional liturgy. If such a solution were in fact proposed, the problem of resources that Father Kocik raises would remain a real one; even with dedicated clergy, finding enough laypeople with the time and talent to support a new apostolate is still a challenge.

I do not know what could have been done (or what, hoping against hope, still could be done) to save St. Anne's. What I do know is that the closing of churches like St. Anne's represents a major loss in cultural terms, a point expressed very well by Fall River Herald News staff writer Marc Munroe Dion in these words penned earlier this year, when the demise of the parish already seemed likely:
No matter how many lights blazed, or how many candles were lit, there was something dark about those old churches, dark laced with the smell of incense and the echoing sound of the door to the confessional closing, and the stares of the calm-eyed statues.

Immigrants built them as big as the mills where the boss couldn't speak your language and called you names.

"Here we are!" those old churches said. "We are poor, but we have made this so we will have something of our own, something everyone can see."


The parish churches were the bones of a living thing. Even now, the old Catholic churches, open or closed, are the biggest structures in a lot of neighborhoods, and usually the only really beautiful building in the neighborhood.

Will our monument be the free-standing plaza with a dollar store, a drug store, a laundromat, and a place to buy discount cigarettes? Even in the suburbs, where the people have more money than they do in Fall River, they do not, and cannot, build anything like the huge and beautiful churches that even poor Fall River neighborhoods once took for granted. Will future generations guess what kind of people we were by looking at the ruins of a "fulfillment center," or a marijuana "grow facility"?
As the Anaphora of St. Basil puts it, "preserve this holy house until the end of the world." AMDG.