In my search for Ash Wednesday schedules on Staten Island, I recently came across a couple of news items that I feel reflect badly on our Island churches' sense of priorities. The first one is this story about how some island churches are celebrating Lent. It tells how the Methodist and Presbyterian churches are sponsoring a program called "Living Lent" which sounds like something that correctly focuses on the individual's spirituality in this season of relflection and repentance. In contrast, the Catholic church mentioned in the article, St. Rita's (no link- dead website), is sponsoring a "cultural series" every Friday night during Lent. The first lecture deals with the building of the cathedral in Milan. Future weeks will focus on "St. Paul, St. Terese de Lisieux and St. Thomas' missionary journey in India." Well, it's nice that they decided to throw in some religious subjects after the architectural lecture, but judging from the term "cultural series", I'm sure that all the attendees will receive will be a nice, interesting history lesson about those people. I remember when Catholic churches used to have Stations of the Cross every Friday night during Lent. I recall them as some of my most spiritually moving experiences.
The other story was from 2008. It reported that Our Lady Star of the Sea was celebrating its last Ash Wednesday in their current church, which was built in the 60s I believe. Because the parish has a lot of families, they planned to demolish the "old" 500 seat church and build a modern barn-church with a capacity to hold 1000 people. The cost will be 8 million dollars.
Now, I know that pastor there had a mania for new construction when he led a small parish on the North Shore, where Mass was held in the school gym and he was always agitating to build a "real" church. But I really didn't question his reasoning in this article until I read the user comments below it. Someone asked the obvious question why the priests simply couldn't say more Masses on Sunday if overcrowding was such an issue. Talk about cutting the Gordian knot! According to their website, 4200 people attend Mass every weekend. There are currently 8 Saturday and Sunday Masses. That comes out to 525 people per Mass. This means that one extra Mass on Sunday would solve the problem. Throw in another for safety. There are 5 priests on staff. Surely it's more cost effective for some of the priests to work an extra 2 hours a week than to spend 8 million dollars on a new church when you already have a perfectly good one. I won't even begin to get into what else the money could have and should have been spent on.
The extravagance might have been worth it if they were building a new Saint Chappelle or some other architectural masterpiece, but the new design is brutishly modernistic and resembles nothing so much as the waiting area of a bus station. In the minds of these "geniuses", the Port Authority is an appropriate design to emulate when designing a space where 2,000 year old rituals and religious mysteries are celebrated. I've been to more than a few other churches in Staten Island and New Jersey that have the exact same design, and the feeling of coldness and lifelessness in those places was palpable to me. Even a layman like me knows that form should follow function. In my experience however, function follows form as well. Physical surroundings often instill a certain spirit into the people who inhabit them. For example, housing projects that resemble prisons tend to breed criminality. Institutional architecture encourages institutional behavior. And churches that look like theatres, homeless shelters or warehouses often end up used for just those purposes.