Saying Goodbye to Venerable Places: Rites for Leave Taking in Religious Houses
October 29, 2009
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It’s an autumn season for the American Catholic Church. Much of the landscape that held the ethos of U.S. Catholicism is turning beautiful colors, browning and falling to the ground of memory. Hospitals, educational institutions and social service centers founded during the last high immigrant era of American Catholicism are changing shape, mission and or closing their doors. An incredibly beautiful experience of Christian life is slowly fading into winter. Religious communities of men and women are among those profoundly impacted by this transition of Church. What kind of rite and pastoral care might be employed when vowed religious communities leave a venerable place of their history or surrender its care to the local diocese? Two recent experiences of that will be the focus of this reflection: one Franciscan and one Augustinian. This article will look at some resources and ritual paradigms for leave-taking “venerable” places of religious presence.
For the Franciscans, leaving a parish in the Mission District of San Francisco in the summer of 2004, there was such a profound sense of loss and grief. A logo on a T-shirt commissioned by the transition committee said, "IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE FRANCISCAN ORDER.” It had the flavor of T-shirts printed for funerals of gang members. The pattern of the funeral rite was chosen to accompany this leave-taking. The situation among many of the religious and parishioners was still conflicted. Many had not yet resolved themselves to the withdrawal of the friars from the parish and neighborhood. “The buildings were ours,” said one older friar. “They were shaped over the years for a religious community of men and adorned with our iconography and mythology.” Imagine a diocesan priest with a fourteen bedroom house, two schools and six car garage. For a new experience of Church to take place there, we struggled with how best to bring closure. How to set parishioners free enough to open a new chapter of their history? How to do this with our hearts breaking? Even though more appropriate to the Solemn Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle was chosen to lead the procession in and out of the church. Resurrection faith passed from generation to generation, from Easter to Easter, is a faith that will continue to lead the Christian community in this place.
The origin of the rites were twofold. The orations, readings and preface were chosen from the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar. The dismissal rite was patterned after the Order for Christian Funerals with an adapted “Final Commendation” at the end and the dedication of a memorial plaque. The provincial minister of the west coast Franciscans was the presider for the closing liturgy. Introductory rites acknowledged the more than a century of service by this religious community in the local Catholic community and greater neighborhood of the area… but focused on the founding personalities and foundation stories. “Rehistoricizing” is the telling of the foundation myth of a community through another lens, in our case, of the Paschal Mystery. (G. I Waldkoenig, “Closing Churches in the Light of American Religious History,” Gaede, Ending with Hope (2002), 30-42.) The homily took up this pastoral issue by highlighting the pattern of diminishment and vitality in the life of California Catholicism. The Franciscan presence began in San Francisco with foundation of Mission Dolores in 1776 and diminished when the final pastor abandoned the site after 1846 to move to the wharf at the era of the Gold Rush. When German immigrants began pouring into the city nearly forty years later, national parishes were founded to serve them. St. Anthony’s began as a national parish in 1893 by German Franciscans, but found itself soon after ministering to Italians and Irish, and later Asians and Hispanics. Its vitality to the present was always shaped against the movement and acculturation of mixed immigrant communities.
The Prayer of the Faithful spoken in the three current principle languages of the parish, prayed for the local and universal Church and its leaders, the communities past, present and future, especially those still conflicted after the decision to withdraw from St. Anthony parish. It prayed also for healing and reconciliation of any words spoke in anger or frustration during the period of discernment and for any relationships that remain broken or strained. The conclusion of the prayer focused on New Testament images of foundation. “…We pray that you keep us ever mindful that wherever two or three are gathered in your name, your holy presence will be known. Wherever you lead us we will continue to be your holy people, your imperishable temple.”
After the Prayer after Communion, a Final Commendation, procession and the dedication of a memorial plaque on the Bell Tower was adapted as a rite of leave-taking for the liturgy. “Before we go our separate ways, let us give thanks for the ministry of the Franciscans to this parish of St. Anthony. May our farewell express our deep affection for the church and this place. May it ease our sadness and strengthen our hope.” A brazier of incense as in the Dedication of a Church had been placed on the altar together with the keys of the parish. The friars sang a good-bye hymn, the west coast version of “The Blessing of St. Francis,” and the parishioners sang a popular Spanish farewell song back to the friars.
The presider prayed, “Into Your hands, Father of Mercies, we commend the many friars and lay leadership who have served this parish of Saint Anthony over these 111 years… Bless this parish community as it begins a new era of its history. In the new Jerusalem, gather us all with you and the communion of saints to the fullness of eternal life.”
As the provincial minister handed back the keys of the parish to the local dean, he added an additional comment, as often happens in funerals. In this case, it was a request for pardon for any we had harmed over the years the Franciscans had the care of the parish. The dean, representing the Archdiocese, likewise added a further comment in tribute to the friars’ century of ministry in that place. Others began to stand up from the pews to offer a final tribute. The rite suddenly became extended and tedious. Perhaps it tried to do too many things at the end. Story telling and eulogies could have been done better at the ample reception planned afterward. After the handing on of the keys and the gratitude was expressed, people appeared anxious to leave. The dismissal rite was delayed to the blessing of the memorial plaque at the church’s street level bell tower. All of the assembled friars kissed the altar as a final gesture of leave taking.
At the blessing of the memorial, an action modeled on the burial, the provincial used words adapted from the Rite of Blessings for the Site of a New Church. The final blessing and dismissal called for a future of vibrant faith, “ May Christ who promised to remain with his Church forever continue to fill our hearts with the assurance of God’s presence.”
For the Augustinians of Villanova province, leaving Washington, D.C. in April of 2007, a different climate of pastoral care was presented. “We didn’t want to leave the place grieving,” said its final prior Rev. Luis Vera, OSA. The community planned to move to a cooperative formation project between all of their U.S. provinces in the Mid-west. Their mission and tradition of religious community needed to journey to Chicago. Still, the history of the more then seventy years of presence in the Washington area needed to be remembered and celebrated ritually. Augustinian College had served at its current site behind Catholic University since 1992 when it had moved from the former location where it had been founded in 1923. The rites chosen focused on “remembering well” and reinforcing the tradition of religious life observed over the years in both places. The change of buildings in 1992 had been marked with little fanfare and rites of transition. This leave-taking needed to honor a history in both locations.
Besides a spacious building, the rites also sought to adequately take leave of the two communities of Washington Theological Union and the folks in the immediate neighborhood of the friary with procession and repeated simple chant, “Praise, Praise, Praise the Lord,” by heart without hymnals. The friars and their guests were gathered in chapel by Augustine’s own exhortation, “…we are Christians, and we want to go on with the journey, and even if we don’t want to go…. all who come into this life are compelled by the turning wheel of time to pass on. There must be no room for any kind of idleness; keep walking…” Words adapted from the Final Commendation from the Order of Christian Funerals, tried to acknowledge the feelings of loss and grief. “May our farewell express our feelings for this place and for the people who have lived here.”
Remembrance was connected to mission by lingering on the formal words of the original documents as they were proclaimed in different parts of the building. The prior used the original documents of the foundation of the institution with its significant dates and signers to recall the history in its profound, humorous and sometimes tragic incidentals. The procession moved from the chapel to different parts of the building, beginning with the front door. Prayer acknowledged the founder’s initiative, vision, resources, and benefactors in the place where these memories were most contained. The front door and foyer with photos of the old Augustinian College, images of Sts. Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentine and paintings of the first prior had welcomed new recruits and visitors over the years.
The rite proclaimed readings from the Constitutions and the Rule from the Augustinian Order in different “stations” of the building, looking backward and forward in gratitude. The proclamation in the common room spoke about hospitality and “and “friendship founded in Christ.” (Augustinian Constitutions, 120-A)
The ordo or ritual pattern of house blessing served as another background to the rite. Exhortation, remembrance, and thanksgiving, moving from the chapel to the main spaces of the house were interweaved with quotes from the founding documents and mythology of the Order. “God of joy, no room will have life unless touched by your love.” Praise and acknowledgment of the key values of common life together were noted in each room of the house - values imperative to flourishing of religious life in the new location. The processional chants reflected a sense of continuity with what was done in the past and what was about to happen. The rite sought to move with a “clear, conscious and purposeful effort from one thing to another.” It sought to be whole, purposeful and honest.
The refectory together with the chapel and common rooms were particular loci of the community’s life together with common prayer at its source. Saint Augustine writing set the stage. “The God of gods did graciously will to be hungry for our sake. He came to be hungry himself and to fill us with rich food; he came to endure thirst and give us drink; he came to be clothed in our mortal nature and clothe us in immortality; he came poor to make us rich.” The oration in the library spoke of the need for study as a source of intellectual formation and apostolate. The prayer was addressed to the God of wisdom, “we know you are a source of life… We give you thanks for the times we came to nourish our spirits and our intellects with your wisdom and the wisdom of all the ages. ”
The rite ended in the chapel, in the same place as it started. The local prior read the certificate of closing from the Prior General in Rome. “I suppress the religious houses of Augustinian College.” As the seal was surrendered to the provincial, he responded in gratitude, “I thank you in the name of the Church and of your brothers for the service you have rendered.” Intercessions followed for the Order, the Church and the local bishops honoring the corner stones of this mission and community: “For the courage to move onward with hope;” “To live with the beauty ever ancient, ever new;” “For those who are conflicted for words spoke in anger or frustration;” “For any relationships that remain broken or strained ... we pray to the Lord.”
The last prayer acknowledged the finality of the closure. “Although the existence of Augustinian College has now come to an end… we give thanks to you for all the blessings we have found here.” The life of this community will continue in another place. The history of Augustinian College has been a privileged period of grace given us by God. We who have come in trust to this place are moved with a new resolve to be renewed in heart.”
The community and students stayed in the building for the ensuing weeks as they packed and moved their possessions and artifacts from the building. They celebrated a final Eucharist in the chapel for just the members of the local community to take leave of the space a final time. The Eucharist was consumed and the tabernacle emptied. The brothers extinguished all the candles around the table and principal icon of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The altar cloth was slowly and purposefully folded removed. The prior gave the final blessing, after which the professed and student friars sang the final “Salve Regina,” kissed the altar and processed from the chapel. "The life of this community will continue in another place…Accompany us as we move from here to new sacred places...” No more rite would be celebrated there.
On what might one assess the effectiveness of these rites? Noble simplicity especially in the context of grief is perhaps one primary criteria against the temptations to do a lot of words. Honest ritual that does not manipulate to any predetermined goal and adequate, lavish time to walk though the varied stages of grief and farewell together. Finally, any rite of leave-taking is efficacious if it reconciles and sets a community of people free enough to step wholeheartedly into the next chapter of their history.
Michael Weldon, OFM, a Franciscan friar from Santa Barbara, CA. Province, is the author of A Struggle For Holy Ground: Reconciliation and the Rites of Parish Closure (Liturgical Press, 2004). He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners, Wisconsin.
Photos by Johan van Parys of the Franciscan Church in Tielt, Belgium founded in the 17th C. left by the Franciscan Order in 2006.
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