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Monday, March 01, 2010

De gustibus non est disputandum

A friend of mine once told me a good way of finding Catholic churches bearing reasonable resemblance to their appearance in pre-Vatican II days is to look in either poor neighborhoods or "former" neighborhoods, i.e. neighborhoods in which few, if any, people live anymore. Those churches generally having no money, when it came time to to accommodate the post-Vatican II reforms, they did it on the cheap, doing little structural damage to their buildings (to ruin a church properly not only calls for horrendous taste but also a vast budget; former Archbishop Rembert Weakland proved that spectacularly, possibly setting the gold standard for church wrecking, with his disastrous "renovations" of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee).

A fine example of a church in a former neighborhood that retains most of its former glory is the Church of the Holy Innocents, smack in the middle of the garment district in midtown Manhattan; which nonetheless does a brisk business caring for the souls of garment workers, shoppers and commuters rushing to and from nearby Penn Station. The requisite "picnic table" altar is there but easily ignored, in fact Holy Innocents is able to offer a proper Tridentine (Latin) Mass every evening, six days a week.

Not on the same scale as Holy Innocents but still pleasant to the eye is the Church of St. Elizabeth, found in an impoverished section of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. Built during the reign of Cardinal Hayes in the 1920s, it has a comfortably cluttered Catholic look and feel to it and, all in all, looks pretty much the same as it must have when it went up; even the altar rail is intact. No doubt owing to the church's meager budget, the picnic table altar (and the platform it sits on) is made of wood, giving it a happily temporary appearance and also giving one the hope it might one day be removed.

Recently, alas, I learned St. Elizabeth's must have found some money and while the wooden picnic table will be removed, it is to be replaced by a much more substantial one made of marble. In addition, a marble platform to hold the thing up will be built in the sanctuary and the altar rail chopped up in order to "create more space in the sanctuary" (How is that possible? The altar rail abuts the nave.).

What a shame! Post-Vatican II reformers (who are really getting long in the tooth, I must say) may vehemently deny it but Holy Church is, albeit glacially, moving back to traditional worship. For St. Elizabeth's to make these dreadful, expensive and unneeded alterations this late in the game seems to be folly and betrays ignorance of the direction in which Holy Church is moving. It will also mar a most attractive and charming church.

(Image from the American Guild of Organists, New York City website.)

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