Parish Boundaries: “Where are you from?”

The Catholic churches within biking distance of my home offer various a vacuous and shoddy form of liturgy. In addition, they are ugly.

Catholics helpfully suggest that I get in my car and drive 20 miles to attend a Mass at a parish more in alignment with my liturgical and aesthetic proclivities. But I live local; I use my bike to commute to work and for errands. I bike to save money, conserve natural resources and to get exercise. Why should I change my ways and drive 20 miles on congested freeways to participate in the Mass in a neighborhood far from my own? These well meaning Catholics fail to realize that their far-flung travel and consumer approach to church is Protestant, not Catholic. At least as Catholicism existed until Vatican II when the Church splintered into factions.

Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North, by John T. McGreevy, offers significant insight into the powerful social cohesion of Catholics in the geographically centralized parish system that existed until the fragmentation wrought by Vatican II (excerpts from p. 11-25):

At least from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century onward, canon law stressed that the parish served all of the souls living within its boundaries.

… a specifically Catholic style of merging neighborhood and religion organized life in the large sections of the northern cities by the 1920s and 1930s. Virtually all of the Catholic immigrant groups… placed enormous financial, social, and cultural weight on the parish church as an organizer of local life.

In the 1950s, a Detroit study found 70 percent of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week as opposed to 33 percent of the city’s white Protestants and 12 percent of the city’s Jews. “Those whose experience of church influence has been confined to Protestant bodies,” concluded one study of Poles in Philadelphia, “will have exceedingly little idea of the extent of the Church’s power in a Roman Catholic community.”

nun and students

The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local… Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations—including youth groups, mothers’ clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations—each with a priest-moderator, the requisite fundraiser, and group masses. Parish sports teams for even the youngest boys shaped parish identity, with fierce rivalries, developing in Catholic sports leagues between Immaculate Conception and Sacred heat, St. Mary’s and Little Flower.

Resurection Girls Basketball league 1957

Resurection Girls Basketball league, 1957

These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities include a church (often of remarkable scale) a parochial school, a convent, a rectory and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums…

Brooklyn alone contained one hundred and twenty-nine parishes and over one hundred Catholic elementary schools. In New York City more generally, forty-five orders of religious men, ranging from Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed twenty-five hospitals, the clergy and members of religious orders supervised over a hundred high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes seminaries and orphanages was daunting.


Parish school classroom, 1950s

…when examining the “splendidly organized system constructed by the Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups experienced. As one Detroit study emphasizes, “the general Protestant lack of the geographical parish makes it impossible to know who should be responsible or to hold any one responsible for churching any given area.”

Put another way, Catholic neighborhoods were created, not found… The result of these Catholic efforts was a merger of educational, religious, and social communities.


Saint Rita, Brooklyn, 1940s

Significantly, studies as late as the 1960s and 1970s found Catholics unusually apt to form friendships and social networks based upon religious ties, as opposed to ethnic or occupational networks. Catholics stayed longer in urban neighborhoods, counted more friends within walking distance, and were more likely to be involved in neighborhood institutions, especially a local parish church. One Pittsburgh study concluded that perhaps the best way to ensure neighborhood stability was to place a Catholic church in the center of the area.

Through the 1950s, advertisements in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Chicago newspapers often listed available apartments and homes by parish—“Holy Redeemer 2 flat” or “Little Flower Bungalow”—instead of using community names.

A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish is found in the answer of Catholics and some non-Catholics to the question, “Where are you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names—Visitation, Resurrection, St Lucy’s—a distant echo of a rural Europe where village and parish identity assumed primary importance.

Catholic parishes also routinely sponsored parades and processions through the street of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. As the Eucharistic host was carried through the streets of the neighborhood, parishioners fell on their knees.

roxbury procession 1956

Procession in Roxbury, MA 1956

And yet Catholic parishes were more than the sum of their organizational parts. Catholic practice depended upon Catholic theology, and more specifically a theological belief that the individual came to know God, and the community came to be church, within a particular, geographically defined space. Communities with distinct physical boundaries—as opposed to communities defined by occupation or gender–actually became Church in the context of the liturgy, just as Christ became a specific, and corporeal, in celebration of the Eucharist.

This theological emphasis on the local is also evident in the Catholic tradition of seeing in the neighborhood and society more generally evidence of God’s presence. Where both Jews and Protestants emphases the reading of texts, Catholics developed multiple routs to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, a will to endow seemingly mundane daily evens with the possibility of grace, always stressing how God became human or Word became flesh.

Father Peter Paper Dolls


Father Peter paper dolls, from the 1940s, convey the superior catechesis of the Church before Vatican II. Instructions that accompany Father Peter provide insights on the significance of the altar:

The most important thing in the church is the altar, for it represents Our Lord, Jesus Christ. St. John, in the Apocalypse, said that he saw a golden altar standing before the throne of God on Which and through Whom the offerings were made to God the Father. The altar must be of stone, and in this it also represents Christ, for St Paul tells of the Israelites drinking water from the rock, and says that the rock was Christ. In the early days of the Church, Mass was said in the Catacombs, those underground burial places used by the Christians. Some of the passages were enlarged into little chapels and in these martyrs were buried and upon their tombs priests said Mass. So today every altar must be of stone and must contain within it the relics of saints.

The henchmen of Vatican II, in their zeal to modernize and Protestantize the Church, allowed tables to substitute for altars.

ugly altar

Postconciliar table: Saint Francis by the Sea, Charleston, N.C.

saint albertus altar

Preconcilliar altar: Saint Albertus, Detroit, MI

More Father Pater paper dolls, complete with Altar Boy Paul and monstrance

Vatican II Declares: In with the Banners! Out with the Statues!

Robert Orsi offers insight on how devout Catholics were affected by the changes of Vatican II in Thank You Saint Jude:

It is generally thought that the liturgical reforms insured by the Second Vatican Council brought an end to the great era of popular piety. As journalist Paul Hendrickson has written in his evocative memoir of seminary life in these years, it seemed as if one day in the mid-1960s the saints suddenly disappeared from the churches, replace by huge and colorful banners with the words of moral exhortation, like PEACE and AGAPE, stitched on them in big felt letters.

banner 3

The effort to change the inner lives of American Catholics, to reconfigure the ways they engaged the sacred, practiced their faith and indeed, the way they faced the everyday challenges of their lives unfolded as a tense and complex process that met with resistance, ambivalence, and uncertainty at all levels, as such efforts to “reform” popular piety always do. A bitter internecine conflict erupted over the continued appropriateness of some of the most beloved practices associated with American Catholic popular piety and the cult of the saints.

mary shrine

The many devotional forms that had been developed in the preceding decades were criticized as regressive and irrelevant expressions of an infantile faith no longer acceptable in a spiritually sophisticated community. In postconciliar culture, the saints and the Virgin Mary were to be reimagined in the language of friendship, morality or mythology, deemphasizing what the reformers considered an inappropriate extravagant emphasis on the miraculous and the material. The reformers insisted that if popular devotions were to remain a feature of Catholic life, they would have to surrounded by words.

banner 2

One way of understanding the transitions of the early 1960s, as Paul Hendrickson’s recollection of the banners suggest, is as a shift from a culture of intimacy with many different holy figures, vividly imagined as real persons with foibles and idiosyncrasies, who entered into complex relations with their devout

saint statues

in a domain relatively unmediated by official authorities, to a culture in which religious practice was to be bounded and authorized by words. Devotions now had to accompanied by some sort of discursive practice, either explanatory sermon, clerical reflections on the meaning of particular expressions of piety or readings of scripture, as if by hedging popular practices with the written and spoken word, their improvisatory and discursive potential could be controlled or diminished. Words were not absent from preconciliar culture, of course, with its prayer cards,

priest holy card

novena booklets, and pious ejaculations—short utterances of praise, thanksgiving, or petition. The difference is that the words of the old devotionalism were efficacious in relation to specific cultic practices and disciplines, such as vows and novenas, and only as they expressed and realized relationships with particular holy figures. The new words belonged to highly educated, professionalized class of specialist in church life—teachers, liturgists, educators, administrators—whose emergence at this time reflected the confident entry of American Catholics into the middle class; the words on the banners derived their power and legitimacy from the authority of this class in the ecclesiastical institution, not from their association with a beloved saint.

banner 5

A Bitter Trial

Evelyn Waugh portrait by Henry Lamb

Evelyn Waugh portrait by Henry Lamb

Editor, Alcuin Reid, in A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Heenan on the Liturgical Changes, notes:

By the 1930s the rising tide of converts to Catholicism had become a torrent. Throughout that decade there were some twelve thousand converts a year in England alone. Literary converts included Compton MacKenzie (Monarch of the Glen), Alfred Noyes and G.K. Chesterton. On the Continent converts included Sigrid Undset and Jacques Maritain.

It is a singularly intriguing fact that the preconciliar Church was so effective in evangelizing modern culture, whereas the number of converts to the faith seemed to diminish in the sixties and seventies in direct proportion to the presence of the much-vaunted aggiornamento, the muddle-headed belief that the Church needed to be brought “up-to-date”. The success of orthodoxy in winning converts compared with the failure of modernism must surely raise not merely eyebrows but soul-searching questions. The facts would appear to confirm the maxim usually attributed to Chesterton that we don’t need a Church that will move with the world but a Church that will move the world.

Trading Beauty for Ugliness

This is the lovely Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, former cathedral of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.


Saint Vibiana served as the cathedral of Los Angeles for over 100 years. It was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the Archdiocese sought to demolish it. Even though Cardinal Mahoney saw no value in preserving Saint Viviana, the people of Los Angeles fought to preserve the cathedral due to its beauty and historical significance. They secured a deal for the City of Los Angeles to purchase the cathedral from the Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese use the money to build this cement monstrosity instead.

b and w cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels-in-los-angeles-jamie-pham

Jamie Pham, Fine Art America

The former cathedral now serves as the event venue, Vibiana.


Calloway Gable Studios

More on the history of Saint Vibiana

Latin Solemn High Mass at Saint Vibiana from the 1944 movie, Christmas Holiday.

A final picture of Saint Vibiana’s altar.

vibiana altar

Why did they remove the altar?

People say that much liturgical nonsense perpetrated since Vatican II is not the direct result of the Council. However, the Council “primed” Catholics to expect change on a consistent basis and opened the floodgates to the unprecedented, unabated changes that continue to the present. The text, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW), written by the USCCB Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, provided justification for the desecration of many of our churches and chapels.

Saint Patrick’s Seminary attributes EACW as the authoritative text to justify banishing their chapel’s beautiful, white, Italian marble altar and replacing it with a “liturgical tower”  and table. I quote from their website:

“The Chapel Renovation Committee was then formed with the charge of bringing out the best qualities of the beautiful oak chapel, while adapting the space to contemporary worship and the goals of Vatican II.

After many months of design consideration, the Committee recommended to Archbishop Quinn that the existing marble altar be removed and replaced with a eucharistic tower on a three-riser platform…

Designs for furnishings were prepared to reflect the chapel architecture and the requirements of Art and Environment in Catholic Worship.”

Note that the Saint Patrick’s Seminary attributes EACW as being authoritative by using the word “requirement” in the preceding paragraph.

Here is how the USCCB defines EACW:

“Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” does not have the force of law in and of itself. It is not particular law for the dioceses of the United States of America, but a commentary on that law by the Committee for the Liturgy. However, it does quote several documents of the Apostolic See and in that sense it has the force of the documents it quotes in the areas where those documents legislate.”

USCCB on Environment and Art in Catholic Worship

So it’s a bit convoluted. However, the Archbishop and President/Rector of Saint Patrick’s Seminary understood EACW as making “requirements” about liturgical “furnishings” when they made their regretful decision to relegate the altar to the seminary basement and the angels that attended the altar to an outside courtyard.

You can read the story here 

Skip down to the section “Renovation: 1989-1993” for salient details and a picture of the beautiful altar and angels before the “renovation”.

Critique of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship from architect, Duncan Stroik