By Kathy Ewing
Despite the closing of over 30 Catholic churches in the city of Cleveland, “the Church” does still remain in the city—in the form of surviving Catholic parishes, the many mosques and Protestant churches who haven’t left, and the volunteers and city residents who work to make Cleveland a better place.
To assert glibly, however, that the Catholic Church still serves the city (the buildings being mere “window dressing”), as Anne Welsh of South Euclid wrote in a recent letter to the Plain Dealer (12/11/10) is naive and misinformed. Many people previously served by Catholic churches in their neighborhood have been abandoned.
Lamont (not his real name), for example, used to attend St. Cecilia on Kinsman on Sundays and weekdays. Developmentally disabled, he found hot coffee and warm meals and people to talk to. Since the church closed last April, the parishioners closest to Lamont have tried to keep in touch. But because he has no phone and moves from one shelter and group home to another, their efforts have been frustrating and only sporadically successful. Our congregation is no longer present every week to see him, offer him a doughnut, and ask him how he’s doing.
Lamont represents hundreds of other city residents. St. Cecilia used to host two large Narcotics Anonymous groups every week. People like this, the people the Church should be striving most to serve, have yet to find another home.
St. Cecilia traditionally assembled and delivered about sixty fruit baskets at the holiday season to shut-ins. This year, one valiant former member, now working at another urban parish, collected enough items for about a dozen baskets and distributed them herself. The other folks accustomed to hearing from us just aren’t hearing from us this year. As individuals, we’re doing what we can, but we have scattered to new churches with new needs. Many of us just are not in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood any more.
We try to stay in contact with the neighbors left behind, and many suburban churches and the overwhelmed city churches are also trying to fill the gaps. Other denominations, social service agencies, and the working-class residents in Cleveland’s poor neighborhoods still serve the city. The Thea Bowman Center on Union Avenue provides meals, groceries, tutoring for adults and children, as well as other services.
But for the individuals served by St. Cecilia, Epiphany, Christ the King, St. Francis, and so many others, nothing has replaced our consistent presence in Cleveland neighborhoods.
After St. Cecilia’s last Sunday Mass, in April of 2010, we had a party in the church hall. The implacable Bishop and his contingent had left to preside over another church closing. I hurried from group to group saying my goodbyes, getting hugs, and taking pictures. The thought that soon I would leave for the last time the church basement where I had spent so many hours hung over me, but like everyone else, I tried to keep those thoughts at bay.
As I stood talking to one group, our pastor Father Dan Begin slipped away from us, and I felt a moment’s regret. Who’s he going off to talk to now instead of us? I watched him approach a woman sitting all alone against the wall.
I recognized that woman. I had seen her at Mass many times, but had never spoken to her, never done more than give her a quick nod or smile. She had grey hair and a sallow face and shabby clothes. As I watched Father Dan, I learned from him, as I had done so many times before. I realized that of all the people in that hall, she was the most important one to seek out and talk to.
I watched him lean closer to hear what she had to say, giving her his complete attention, speaking quietly, and nodding.
The party broke up soon afterward. I was sadly making my way to my car when I saw the grey-haired lady walking down the sidewalk away from the church. Following the lesson just learned from Father Dan, I raced up to her and introduced myself, asking if she wanted a ride to wherever she was going. She shook her head and shooed me away impatiently. I told her I was sorry we were closing. She stopped and looked me in the eye.
“The Church doesn’t care about poor people,” she said. She turned and walked away. By selling its city churches and throwing its resources, clergy, and support out to the suburbs — to Chagrin Falls and Solon and Rocky River — the Catholic Church has turned its back on her.