Every morning I celebrate Mass in the chapel of the Absolute House, a rehabilitation center where alcoholics and addicts stay for months on end during their path to recovery. The building is a former convent, built in the halcyon 1950s.
There are 35 rooms in the place, an office and special suites for the superiors, a big kitchen and dining room, and recreation rooms in the basement.
The chapel seats about 40 people, and has stained-glass windows dedicated to the women saints St. Thérèse, St. Agnes, St. Anne, and St. Catherine. When I squeeze behind the marble altar (it was made for Mass ad orientem, with the priest facing the same way as the people) and look out at the congregation, often there are only two registered parishioners and 20 to 30 men, mostly young, who are battling the demon of addiction.
They are not all Catholic, so some can only come for a blessing at Communion, but they learn the responses and sing the Our Father and participate by reading and ringing the bells at the consecration.
I think, sometimes, about how the chapel was when it was first opened in 1954, and the only people at Mass were religious sisters getting ready for a long day’s work.
The monsignor who built the huge convent had something of an edifice complex. He remodeled the rectory, purchased a public school building to accommodate the burgeoning wave of Boomers to educate, and tried to Romanize our beautiful neo-Gothic church.
The buildings are still here, but I doubt he would recognize the parish, which in his day had a staff of four “assistants” and you had to get to Mass early to find a seat on Sunday.
Now I am the only priest and there is plenty of pew space available at any liturgy.
Little did he know, I reflect sometimes after Mass in the Absolute House, that he was building a rehab center.
He probably thought the convent would continue as it started. The sisters have long left the parish, our school has a lay staff and reduced students, most of them non-Catholics, the Credit Union and the Knights of Columbus chapter had to merge and move, the old boiler room is a food and clothing bank, and more people crowd into the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the basement than come up into what some now quaintly call “our worship space.”
The priest had no idea that the opioid epidemic would be ravaging the Rust Belt, nor that women religious would be scarcer and scarcer. But God knew what the building would be used for, the initial purpose was good, and so is the latter day one. God intended to build the house that would help save some lives from heroin and alcoholism, and knew the chapel accustomed to the nuns’ chant would morph into one where mostly men worship.
Which leads me to a thought about a place far from Cleveland that has been repurposed lately: I think of it like a novel with converging plot lines.
It goes like this:
The Reformed Church in America produces a Southern Californian evangelist. He is like the old tent preachers, except that he is very savvy and invents a drive-in kind of worship experience. Americans love their cars and they love to hear a good preacher. He uses the radio and literally millions of people know who he is and his ministry. The first church he builds, a huge rectangular box, isn’t big enough for the people who want to hear his message.
So he decides to build another bigger and better “worship space.” The man is very good at what he does; he flies around the country because he is a star preacher. In fact, he loves to fly because it puts him closer to God. In a plane, he reads about an architect who has built something in Houston and decides that God is telling him that he has found the man to build a monumental church for his ministry. He had never heard of the famous architect, but it does not matter because the architect never heard of him either.
The budget is generous and the job is accepted. When the architect famous for his steel and glass modernist towers sketches a traditional church, the preacher says that he wants something people in California can relate to, something in which the green earth and the blue sky are never strangers.
The preacher is “plus royaliste que le roi” (“more royalist than the king”). He tells the artist to think in a new language of construction. The architect then designs a modernist cathedral. A “cathedral” that would be called “crystal” because of the glass, but which was not intended for a bishop. (Calvinists don’t have bishops, even friendly ones like Dr. Robert Schuller.)
The pastor is so happy with his “cathedral” that, when he visits Rome and has an audience with Pope John Paul II, he brings along a photo of his glass tabernacle. The pope did not know that it was a memo from God, an answer to some Catholic prayers. The angels smiled.
Meanwhile, Catholicism is growing in Southern California and spreading to keep up with the urban sprawl. Farmland becomes city. A new diocese is carved from another and eventually will have to construct a proper cathedral because the parish that is being used is not large enough.
All the pieces fall together. The preacher wanted to build something to give glory to God in an American idiom; an atheistic architect produces an elegant modernist structure dedicated to something (really Someone) he doesn’t believe in; economic problems cause the preacher to have to give up his cathedral, but he still wants it used for God. Just like our convent was repurposed in God’s plan, divine providence decided that the breathtaking structure one critic called “a preacher’s great glass tent” would be the place where the eucharistic sacrifice would be offered and the Church fortified and God praised. I have to believe that God moved all the parts to make the whole.
When I visited Christ Cathedral while it was still in renovation, I said to a priest friend, “Why would God have a Reformed Pastor construct a Catholic cathedral?”
“Probably because a Catholic priest would have been too scared to build anything that ambitious and impressive,” he replied to me.
There is an old Portuguese proverb, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
As another colleague would chime in, “And then some.”
Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of the new book “The Wedding” (Lambing Press, $16.95).
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