A few weeks ago I piled the kids into the car and drove a few miles down the road to have a picnic in the shadow of a beautiful country church. Our area is dotted every few miles with small, simple, yet beautiful churches that were first built by the Ukrainian, Polish, and other Eastern Europeans who settled the area over a hundred years ago. They were settlers who left horrendous political conditions, many were peasants who were treated as property by the rulers of the land that often changed with the winds. These pioneers came to a vast, empty country with harsh weather and little resources other than their own hard work and ambition to finally create their own lives. They traveled across this enormous country, dug through snow and ice, chopped, ploughed, planted and lived a difficult but free life in a new country a world away from where they were born. Along with this courage they brought their faith, and although they lived very simply they would band together with their nearest neighbours to construct a small, log church where a priest could visit whenever possible to give them the sacraments. Miles from the nearest community, there would be a tiny, sacred space built by farmers that showed how much they valued their faith in God who gave them a life fraught with suffering and hardship, but remained with them. The churches appear from seeming nowhere in farmers fields, pastures, or a clearing in the woods, like sprouts of spring flowers in a wilderness.
When I first moved to this area I worked with seniors and I remember one man telling me about building the town's Catholic Church in the early 1960's. He remembered figuring out difficulties involved with digging out the basement, assembling the framing of the walls of the church during violent winds, hoisting the roof trusses. He recalled these memories with a fond pride, a feeling of real accomplishment in tangibly helping build the Church where he could. A humble, small-town church which a bishop named Karol Wojtyla would one day visit.
I couldn't help but be moved by the romanticism of physically building a Church. Helping to make something substantial and visible that revealed your beliefs to the world. A task done to build up God's church on earth in a physical, real world. What a life accomplishment to look back and remember building a house of God. Images of the craftsmen who worked their whole lives building Chartes danced in my head.
But now the majority of these beautiful testaments to the first settlers of this country are empty. They are barred, boarded, and locked up. Many have been desacralized by the dioceses and have fallen into disrepair, victims to our harsh winters. The sacred spaces meant for worship go unvisited, unseen. People maintain the property surrounding the churches, but within there is no life. They have become just shells of a once living and active faith. Within two generations the faith that sacrificed to build a community church out of what little resources were to be had have been abandoned and forgotten by the communities of their descendants.
Every time I pass such a church I feel simultaneously inspired by the faith that once existed, and sorrowful for the absence of that faith today. I imagine the people who built those churches as they hauled logs to erect the walls, how they must have dreamed of adding the beauty of an altar, a special crucifix, a stunning icon. I see the family events that must have been celebrated there, the baptisms, the weddings; but also the grief and mourning of the deaths of small children, parents who died of illness, victims of farm accidents. Through all the workings of life the people would have gone to that church, a humble space in a wide, empty prairie which contained Christ the King in the Blessed Sacrament. They would have participated in the Mass along with the angels there in those echoey and draughty structures. The grace of Almighty God would have flowed to those people there through baptism, confession, marriage, anointing. Priests would have lived a life a sacrifice and difficulty to minister to these isolated areas, to people who spoke different languages, and in the burgeoning towns and communities. These churches represent that faith which was present in those people's lives and lives lived in faith.
I still think of the romanticism and privilege it would be to build a church. To hammer and nail or stack bricks or sculpt or design a testament to God here on earth. However, now when I think of building a church it occurs to me that I am indeed building the Church, through forming the little souls of my children that make up the Body of Christ. I'm forming immortal bricks who can choose to live a faith I pass down to them. These living pieces of the Church have incalculable potential. Their precious lives matter to God right now and as they grow and hopefully learn to live and love the faith my work in building will live on.
I want to be part of building a living Church, fully alive with an active faith. I want to build a Church that understands the value of suffering; that is able to appreciate true joy even in the midst of hardship. I want to build up a faith that is knowledgable and applicable to daily life, that will be with my children day in and day out, a faith that is truly lived. I want to build up a Church that knows the intimate and ever-flowing love of Christ; that seeks forgiveness, grace, and life in the Sacraments. I want to build a church that will not succumb to the elements, that will not become soft and rot. It is a lofty goal, only accomplished through God's grace, but it will remain my prayer as I make it my life's work.
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