The Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor referred to the Deep South as “Christ-haunted”, and so it is. Churches dominate the town and countryside, and if you take a drive on a Sunday morning you’ll see that all their car parks are full.
The buildings host congregations from a wide and wild array of Protestant sects. The choice is confusing and confounding, and alongside the predominant Protestants in South Carolina the Catholics comprise less than five per cent of the population.
We have a few historic churches, but most of our buildings are hastily built barns constructed by eager parishioners as a temporary measure. This is what I found when I arrived at the small and poor parish of Our Lady of the Rosary. Located in the sketchy side of town, our church is a prefabricated warehouse which was going to become the school gym when it was first built more than 60 years ago. After six decades of halting progress we are finally building our parish church.
At my first meeting with the building committee I looked at the simple Romanesque design they had chosen and said: “Is this the kind of church you want to build? You’re sure you don’t want to build a cheap church-in-the-round like the other Catholic churches around here?” The parishioners assured me that they wanted a church that “looked like a Catholic church”.
Inspired by the Romanesque architecture of Italy and France, we commissioned a new architect and expanded the original plans.
Why build a Romanesque church in the 21st century in America’s Bible Belt? The answer is simple: “Because it looks like a Catholic church.”
The Southern US is mission territory for Catholics, and our people wanted their new church to look Catholic because they want to proclaim the Catholic truth that tradition and beauty matter. They agreed that beauty is the language of worship.
In a Christian culture that has become centred on entertainment and a shallow self-help gospel they wanted to preach a sermon in stone that the Catholic faith is beautiful, good and true – ever ancient and ever new.
Last summer on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral I popped into the Chapter House to see an exhibition of ancient stained glass from the clerestory level of the cathedral. I know it was naughty of me, but approaching the good cathedral lady in her twinset and pearls I put on my broadest Southern accent and said: “Those antique windows sure are pretty.”
“Yes,” she clipped back, “they’re 12th century.”
“We’re building a new church in South Carolina, where I come from, and we’re going to have some antique stained-glass windows, too – just like y’all.”
“How interesting!” she feigned. “When were they made?
“In the 1940s,” I said with a straight face. “They’re genuine antiques.”
Well, they are considered antiques over here. One of the first purchases we made was a beautiful set of 42 Romanesque-style stained-glass windows made by the famed Wilbur Burnham studios. When searching for the windows I discovered that, along with the set of nave and clerestory windows, there was a beautiful rose window featuring the mysteries of the rosary. As our parish is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, it seemed providential.
Our small parish has rallied round to raise funds and make possible a diocesan loan to complete the church next September with a price tag of just $5 million (£3.24 million). While this seems steep, other parish priests assure me that it is about half of what they thought it would cost. We’ve kept the price down by using modern materials, salvaging artwork from redundant churches and recycling furniture and fittings from our existing church.
Now that we’re on the way we’re heading into the final phase of the fundraising in the hope that we will be able to complete the bell tower. This Anglophile would love to install a set of proper bells and teach my fellow Americans the delights of change ringing. You can visit our website, olrgreenville.com, to learn about the project and make an instant donation if it catches your imagination.
Building this church has been an exhausting and exhilarating experience, and one of the delights has been to share my knowledge and love of “the old country” with Americans who, perhaps, are not as aware as they might be about such matters.
Thus I had to bite my tongue when a parishioner innocently asked: “When you lived in England did you have to build a church?”
“No,” I answered, “my church there was built a thousand years ago.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a parish priest in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit dwightlongenecker.com
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (18/09/15)
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