Posted by Webster
Saturday night, Katie and I saw an exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Association in nearby Gloucester, Mass., home port of the Andrea Gale of “Perfect Storm” fame. I’m not a museum goer; Katie lured me with the promise of a photographic show on “Churches of Rural New England.” The word I didn’t take into account was rural.
The cover image for the catalog (left) was typical of every image in the show: Each church photographed by Steve Rosenthal was shot straight on—never from an angle, always in black-and-white—and always but always Protestant. I read every caption closely: Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, United, Congregational—not one Catholic.
Has my view of the world changed that much since I converted to Catholicism? I used to think of rural New England as God’s country. Now? Where the heck are the Catholics?! I wrote in the visitor registry: “Not one image of a Catholic Church! What does that tell you.” Coward that I am, I left the comment unsigned.
But that word rural. Of course, that omits most Catholics because, since the day New England was first settled by Europeans, the Catholics have been in the cities: the Irish and Italians in Boston, the Portuguese in New Bedford and, yes, Gloucester, with many other national and ethnic groups added to the melting pot, of course, including Poles, Lithuanians, Brazilians, natives of a dozen Spanish-speaking lands, another dozen peoples from Southeast Asia, and of course, the first Catholics in New England, the French (Canadians).
There’s a meditation to be made on these white, four-square Protestant churches—symbols of “traditional New England values.” They look very much like the municipal buildings with which they are often grouped: no ornamentation, no statues, no crosses even. Their only indelible signature is the spire, the single I of aspiration pointing heavenward.
I’m sure someone has written about this better and longer elsewhere. I’ll finish by saying that I’ll take the flamboyant, over-decorated churches of Europe any day of the week, the more gargoyles the better. I can’t think of a better contrast to the rural churches of New England than the divine monstrosity that has been rising in Barcelona for over 125 years, the Sagrada Familia (left), most associated with the artist-architect Antoni Gaudi (1852–1926) and still under construction!
Like a pile of great wax stalagmites dripped from the fires of heaven, the towers of Sagrada Familia will, let’s face it, never be found in rural New England. Which almost makes me want to move to Barcelona.