Sunday, November 21, 2010

The heart of the neighborhood

To get anywhere in our neighborhood--down to the lake, over to the old streetcar station, out to the parkway--you need to drive past the Catholic church. Our quiet winding streets all seem to lead to St. Andrew's, a solid brick structure with a red tile roof and a soaring steeple, topped by a cross. Red-tailed hawks and pigeons like to perch up there, from which they can see, I'm guessing, all the way to the lake in one direction, and over to the mouse-rich railroad tracks in another.

The church is 115 years old, a little older than our house. It is quite plain inside, with clean white walls and wooden pews, but there is a lovely rose window above the door, and tall stained glass windows in the sanctuary. Elsewhere in the building are mysterious narrow doors, and winding hallways that no longer lead anywhere. The woodwork is worn, the doorknobs are dulled with use--how many hundreds and thousands of hands have twisted them over the generations?-- but still beautifully detailed.

The rectory is next door, a pretty brick two-story house with casement windows and white crosses built right into the brick exterior. There used to be a convent on the other side, but it was torn down more than five years ago to make a parking lot, which is always full on Sundays.

We do not belong to St. Andrew's, but it is part of our lives nonetheless because it is such a part of the neighborhood. Every morning when we walk the dogs we see a steady stream of old people walking to morning Mass. On warm days they stand outside and chat. On chilly days they pull themselves up those broad steps to the heavy front door. They smile and welcome us as we trudge by with the boys.

One Christmas Eve, as I drove home quite late from my family celebration, the church doors were open, and I could hear singing. I parked my car and went inside. Amidst the smell of pine boughs and candle wax, people were standing and singing to God. And I stood, too, in the fragrant waxy air, in the dim light, and quietly hummed along.

Every November, right around Thanksgiving, the church hosts a craft and bake sale. We go nearly every year. We buy odd little home-made Christmas ornaments--tiny knitted caps, and miniature sleds made of tongue depressors, or little glass balls made into reindeer by way of pipe-cleaner antlers. The crafts are adorable, made by the old ladies of the church--tea towels and knitted mittens, and potholders and glittered candles.

The sale was yesterday, and I had to buy one of these puppets.  Abby Myers will love it.  Though come to think of it I might have bought her one last year, too.

The baked goods are quite a draw, at least for me--Christmas cookies and fudge and tiny cupcakes. Yesterday we bought a dozen gingersnaps, and looked for krumkakke, for Doug's sister, but I'm pretty sure you need a Lutheran church for that.

This is the last year of the craft sale, because this is the last year of the church.  The archbishop announced in October that 21 parishes would be merging with other parishes next year, and St. Andrew's is one of them. So this is the last craft sale, the last Thanksgiving, the last Christmas. The lovely century-old church will close on Dec. 30. No more old ladies walking to the church on summer mornings; no more weddings, no more funerals. The priest will move away. And what will happen to the buildings? More important, what will happen to the neighborhood once the heart stops beating?

Among the crafts on display yesterday was this one: a replica of the church, made by a family in the neighborhood.  If you look straight down, through the roof, you can see the sanctuary:

It reminds me of the old game we used to play, when we folded our fingers together: Here is the church, and here is it the steeple; open the door and see all the people! And then, when you folded your fingers a different way, the chant changed: Here is the church, and here is the steeple; open the door and where are the people?
Come December 30, the church will be empty, and the people will be gone.