Because I’ll Take Gaudi Over American Gothic Any Day

Because I’ll Take Gaudi Over American Gothic Any Day December 13, 2009

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.

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  • izyperspective

    Very amusing post, Webster…Catholicism: Is It In You? 🙂 Gaudi's "monstrocity" is every bit Catholic – nitty, gritty, corporeal, super-touchable, almost-edible, wild, Romantic…

  • Webster Bull

    Yeah, I'm happy with the phrase "divine monstrosity." There's something beautifully weird about the Sagrada Familia; it certainly pushes me past my comfort zone and invites me into another realm of thought and experience. I'm afraid that New England churches only invite a sort of no-nonsense quietism: Listen to Scripture and get back to work!

  • Turgonian

    "Their only indelible signature is the spire, the single I of aspiration pointing heavenward."Well said, Aragorn, and very ambiguously too. Is the letter I a shape or a personal pronoun? If not the letter but the latter, do we know any old stories of aspiring 'I's? And how did they end up?The Sagrada Familia is beautiful; I'd heard of it, but I didn't know what it looked like. Still, it doesn't surpass the amazing Cathedral of Las Lajas in Colombia. If you haven't seen that one yet, you should Google it.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Turgo. Never heard of Las Lajas but I did Google it and WOW—a combination of La Sagrada Familia and the church & monastery at Montserrat in the mountains above Barcelona. As for my use of the "I"–there is a lot to chew on here, and I'm glad you picked up on this. I think (and I'm sure I'm following others here) that one of the deep truths of Catholicism is in its embrace of multiplicity (nowhere more than in the Universal Church itself, including every race and economic class, the poor, the downtrodden—look at the many, many spires of La Sagrada Familia!), whereas Protestantism believes in and embraces the individual human face to face with God with, at least in its American Episcopal edition (my background), a preference for the white, upper-class individual. Rural New England generally means white, though not necessarily upper-class. Which makes me wonder about the show name "White on White" too.

  • Turgonian

    Multiplicity — yes. It's no coincidence that the reversal of the Babylon Effect happens at Pentecost, when the Church really takes off with the descent of the Holy Spirit, followed by the first papal homily.Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, etc., etc. — they all hear the Church speaking their language…

  • Re "still under construction!" – this is certainly not unusual in Europe. The cathedral in my southern German hometown was begin in the mid-11th century (after the previous cathedral burnt down) and more or less finished at the beginning of the 19th century, so it is now an amalgamation of the styles of eight centuries. Kind of like the Church herself, come to think of it 😉

  • Webster Bull

    Yes, Gorgasal. I love that so many European churches & cathedrals have been built over multiple generations, so that those who started them haven't lived to see them finished. It makes me realize how transitory our earthly lives are, and that only God and His Church live on here below. Thanks for your comment.

  • cathyf

    Out here in the rural midwest we have lots of rural Catholics and rural Catholic churches. White clapboard isn't that common (for protestants, either) because these churches tend to be of a different era and are brick and/or stone.But we have a typical white clapboard country church in a neighboring parish. Except for the lovely and very Catholic stained glass, and statues of saints, it could pass for something further east…

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Cathy, I understand. I was raised (first 10 years) in Minnesota, and I know that New England is a separate beast altogether.

  • Patrick

    Webster:It's interesting that you mentioned this exhibit, because another blog I enjoy reading recently commented on it as well: of his observations was that these old rural New England Churchs were basically tombs or museums because the congregations were not really active anymore. I contrast that with the standing room only noon mass to celebrate the Feast of Immaculate Conception I attended at a suburban Catholic Church here in St. Louis last week. On a Tuesday. I also contrast that with some of the beautiful and ornate catholic churches we have in St. Louis, many of which, if you care, can be found here:'m with you, but you certainly don't have to go to Europe!

  • Webster Bull

    It is wonderful to worship with a host of other Catholics. In our little town of Beverly, our church draws 70-100 people for daily mass at 7am. That always touches me. While it may not be much by city standards, by those of New England main streets it's a small miracle. And what a coincidence. Mark Scott Abeln and I have been following one another on Plurk–I had no idea of his web site, or didn't look closely enough. I will follow him now. Thanks so much.