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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

My sister-in-law has taken up the preservation of church buildings on Buffalo's East Side as her latest project-- her last project was a runaway success, and I expect that she will accomplish a great deal with this endeavor as well. Church building preservation is a tougher problem than saving a single structure-- if the building is owned by a religious organization, like the Diocese of Buffalo-- it is not going to be on the tax rolls, which means that it is a drain on the community. The reason it is empty is usually going to be because the population it once served has moved away from the neighborhood. There's a shortage of priests, so economic decisions have to be made about where to spend resources. Reading this week's edition of the Annoying Mary Kunz Goldman's column (I don't know why-- because it feels good when I stop, I guess), I was struck by the thought that perhaps one way that the Diocese could address the problem of having to close parishes might be to consolidate in the city, rather than in the suburbs. I realize that the first objection would be that the Diocese should situate its parishes in the neighborhoods where the people who attend live, but let's think about it for a moment. The churches in the suburbs are attended-- almost universally, I should think, by people who are driving to Mass. The churches in the suburbs are almost universally newer and uglier than the sorts of building my sister-in-law is trying to preserve. The churches in the suburbs don't really have much historical interest, and are probably buildings that could be more readily adapted to some other use. Why can't the people in the suburbs drive to the nicer buildings in the city, allowing the Diocese to turn the newer, uglier, less historical churches in the suburbs into strip malls or something? G-d knows they have the parking.

I can hear the wailing. What about the schools? Well, I see no reason that schools have to be tied to parishes, so if people in the suburbs want to have Catholic schools, and they don't want to send their children to the Catholic schools in the city, let them. I think that is a separate question, in other words. What about the idea that people should have churches in their neighborhoods? Well, we tried that, and you all drove to church anyway, and built ugly buildings, and what's up with all that terrible folk music? Go to a nice old Polish church, hand built by artisans that knew their stuff-- the church your grandparents might have attended. Mary Kunz Goldberg does, and she is very hip-- just ask her.

I see my plan as having collateral benefits to the economy of the neighborhoods where these churches are, too. Bakeries and coffee shops would be revitalized, as would other small businesses that have been dying because nobody goes to those neighborhoods any more. This is a chance for the Diocese to step up to the paten, so to speak, and do something good while addressing a set of real problems.

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