David Garrand writes in The City Journal about New York City’s churches and the important role they play in the city’s architectural and civic life.
A city without significant places of worship is like a garden devoid of flowers. Images immediately spring to mind: Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s, its majestic dome looming above London like a guardian angel; Notre Dame of Paris, perfectly expressing, in the words of Victor Hugo, “variety and eternity”; Amsterdam’s severe but noble seventeenth-century Spanish-Portuguese synagogue; and Antonio Gaudí’s breathtaking, unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, forever growing like a tree whose final height is incalculable. Yet to be significant, a place of worship does not have to be of great scale but only to possess something of beauty and something of memory.
Many American cities—Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, for instance—have downtowns almost swept clean of places of worship. Either they never existed, or they followed the faithful to the suburbs. Two old cities, Boston and Philadelphia, do indeed possess notable churches at their core, but no American city approaches New York in the richness and variety of its churches and synagogues. Part of what makes the metropolis great, they are wondrous depositories of architecture and art, of history and urban memory.
He then gives a grand tour of some of the significant churches. I think he makes an important point about churches, especially churches that look like churches. Houses of worship are as important to a vital urban (or even rural) downtown landscape as mom-and-pop stores. They are a sign that people live there, that it’s not merely a place that fills up with office drones during the day and turns into a ghost town at night. Cities used to be places where folks lived, not just in proximity to one another, but in community. Churches are an element of the bonds that create that community, even among folks who do not go to the same church or belong to the same faith. The fact of faith was enough.
The presence of churches also reminds us that our sum of existence is not the commercial enterprise or the pursuit of money and goods for survival’s sake. We are transcendent beings, meant for higher purposes. Imagine what the presence of the massive Chartres Cathedral meant to the average medieval French peasant going about his daily business, how the edifice reminded him of heaven and God and his ultimate end every day. We need churches around us to remind us that faith is not something that comes out of the box for an hour every Sunday. This is why the closing of so many parishes is indeed a tragedy partially caused by the abandonment of their faith by so many Catholics.
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