As a child of the 1950’s, I grew up in a small city of 22,000 people with 7 Catholic churches, three Catholic elementary schools, and one Catholic High School. We have now been reduced to no Catholic High School, one elementary school, and 7 parishes which have been combined, functionally, into one. The next step is to choose which one of them to save and continue as the presence of the Roman Catholic Church in Oswego for the foreseeable future.
Church scandals, diminished fealty to Catholic doctrine by the faithful, and a host of other factors have all contributed to the dwindling attendance, to the point now where there are only 1,200 weekly mass attendees. Something has to change. I get that. I admit I am partly responsible for that dwindling as I am no longer a weekly communicant myself, and I am a total product of Catholic education and upbringing. My children no longer attend church regularly either. We can’t fix all that ails the Church of Christ, although I personally have some ideas. It might help to allow women to be ordained and for clergymen to marry, for example. That would be a good start.
There is nothing sinful about that type of reform. There are other reforms which could be undertaken to make the church more welcoming and inclusive and Pope Francis seems to be at least in the beginning stages of that process. Meanwhile, we have a choice to make, and for me, that choice is clear.
In the end, it is St. Mary’s spire which must be preserved, and its gothic, byzantine, rococo art and architecture that must be maintained. It is an iconic community structure, with it’s steeple visible to all those approaching the city. It is not only mired in history, it is a link to our spiritual past and our inspirational future.
Imagine what the community reaction would be if we were debating closing the courthouse, or the library, or city hall? St. Mary’s is in that category at the core of the community’s being. The other churches are nice churches, functional and all, but they are buildings. Important structures to be sure, but not adorned with dazzling stained glass windows, wooden sculptures and arching ceilings, and most inspiring of all, a bell tower in a steeple that bears no local comparison. It has often been called the cathedral of the north, and it indeed is.
I know that losing St. Joseph’s or St. Paul’s or St. Stephen’s or St. Peter’s is a hard cross to bear for the many congregants whose families have spent a lifetime worshiping there, just as losing St. John’s and St. Louis’s was to their parishioners, but there is plenty of room for their inclusion in the massive wooden pews of St. Mary of the Assumption. I am not so sure about the practice of renaming the church “Good Shepherd”. That idea is apparently intended to neutralize the effect of loss or sense of triumph of one congregation over another. I think it is a cosmetic paste that will not last long.
St. Mary’s is St. Mary’s and it always will be. The real question is will the citizens of the Oswego Community, catholic and otherwise, support its continuance and vote with their feet as well as their wallets to keep this icon alive.
I, for one, will and I suspect there are many more of us Oswego natives who will as well. Any other choice would seem to me to be an admission of failure, and any road forward which does not involve the utilization of this structure in a wider array of community activities would be a mistake as well. In the end, this is not an east side v. west side decision, or a mine vs. yours, it is an “us” that St. Mary’s bells toll for. Bing Crosby had it correct when he sang the lyrics of that 1945 song:
“The bells of St. Mary’s
Ah! Hear they are calling
The young loves, the true loves
Who come from the sea
And So, my beloved
When red leaves are falling
The love bells shall ring out
Ring out for you and me…”
John T. Sullivan Jr.