The Bats of St. Alphonsus

The Bats of St. Alphonsus July 6, 2017
I like bats, yo. (Photo: Jonathan Ryan)
I like bats, yo. (Photo: Jonathan Ryan)

As a writer and artist, people ask me why I’ve gotten back into parish work. It’s a fair question as many people see local parish work as a hinderance to creative expression. The local church often does strangle creativity in a variety of ways. Every time I look at a lily white Marian prayer card, for example, I feel brain cells dying like I drank a quart of alcohol.

Yet parish life can also contain surprises and little mysteries to contemplate. I work at a parish in suburban Indianapolis that is 5,000 people strong. At first glance, it seems like a normal, Catholic parish. But above our heads flutter the bats of St. Alphonsus. I didn’t know we had bats on the grounds until I received an email while attending the Trying to Say God conference. It outlined our current bat situation and the plan to build houses the resident population.

The idea fascinated me, and when I got back to the parish on Monday morning, I found myself gazing up at our rooftops, towers and spires. Parents pulled up in their SUV’s full of orange t-shirted children for the start of our Vacation Bible School week. I smiled as I imagined gigantic vampire bats swooping down, ready to suck their blood, making little vampires that would prey on the quiet village of Zionsville.

Later that morning, I decided to do a little research on our bats. I cornered Tom, head of maintenance at our parish, and quizzed him. As we talked, it become evident how much he loved the bats and wanted to care for them. Tom described with watery eyes how he’d found a dead one on the floor near our Mary garden. Still, he acknowledged they presented a problem. The bats keep shitting all over the Knights of Columbus regalia in the main dining area of the parish hall. With a wry smile he said, “We could probably fund the next youth mission trip by selling bat poop to a gun powder company or something.”

I asked, “So, what can we do about it? Can we trap them or something? Call animal control?”

He shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that. Our bats are the Indiana Brown Bat and it’s a very endangered species. We have to protect them by law. So, it’s a bit of a problem. That’s why Father wanted to build bat houses.”

Not knowing anything about Indiana Brown Bats (Myotis Sodalis), I looked up some basic facts. They were discovered in 1904 in Wyandotte Cave in Southern Indiana. The curious thing about Indiana Bats is that they supposedly only like caves and dark forests, where they like to cluster in large colonies. There aren’t a huge amount of caves in Indiana, so their habitat is often threatened by human intrusion. The fact they’ve decided to call our parish grounds home seems a bit odd. Walking around the property, Tom told me he couldn’t figure out where they might be roosting. He speculated it could either be the old bell tower that rises over what is now our parish hall (I keep trying not think of it as Batshit Hall) or the new copula on the eight-year-old sanctuary that dominates our parish property.

Bats inhabiting churches is such an old cultural horror trope. Because bats used to be feared, they became symbolic of evil infiltrating the church, which is probably why Bram Stoker used them to personify evil. But as I watched the videos of the bats who inhabit our parish grounds, I realized how cute and vulnerable they are to human intrusion. They aren’t minions of the Satanic Majesty, but disease-carrying bug-eating machines, God’s own natural pest control. I found a story about two Kentucky assholes, who, in 2007, went into a cave and stomped 100 of them to death in a perfect display of disordered understandings of what it means to be a steward of God’s creation.

Tom’s grounds crew started work on the bat boxes.  They are simple wooden boxes, hung on posts or walls, that allow bats to rest peaceably in the dark during the day. During the summer, high school kids work on our campus grounds and I’ve watched as they build the boxes with their own hands.

I decided to ask Father why he decided to build the boxes rather than just having them moved by the state. He just smiled and said, “Laudato Si, after all.”

Laudato Si, after all. It seemed be the perfect answer. Very often, we look for grand gestures to fix all of our problems. Especially in America, we seemed obsessed with the idea that everything must be fixed with the big and dramatic. But, this sort of attitude reminds me of a gas-lighting narcissistic husband. That is, he buys a wife a shiny and beautiful car, then starves her for attention and belittles her. Grand gestures often mask every day abuse.

We hardly ever slow down, pick up a piece of trash or take the time to build houses for our own little colony of bats. The reality is, very few of us have the power to change things on a national or international level. While I hate really hate The Benedict Option, it did bring out an important point. Maybe we should stop making grand gestures and focus on the communities around us. Not the isolated Christian cultures, but our houses, our neighborhoods, our towns, our local artists and our local farmer’s market.

The other night, I worked late at the church, and I decided to watch the night skies around the parish hall and the sanctuary. Sure enough, I could just make out the tiny fluttering wings of the bats as they chased bugs in the night sky. They would eat their fill and then go back to sleep somewhere on the parish grounds, protected by the maintenance guys at my parish.

No longer feared symbols of horror, but beloved members of the community, symbols of the Mystery of God.

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