Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Jesus Saves" . . . But not on heating bills

Bad Catholics that we are, I've lived here since February and, despite best intentions, had yet to make it to one of the many Catholic churches around here for Sunday mass. First, a little background on the Catholic scene in Binghamton: Los Angeles is certainly a "Catholic city" because it's majority Latino, and is actually part of the country's biggest archdiocese, with 5 million congregants. Binghamton is part of the Diocese of Syracuse and, as you might have guessed, not quite so many parishioners as L.A. - only 350,000.

These numbers are misleading to me as a resident of the area, though, since I didn't feel like I interacted with a lot of Catholics around me, personally, in my daily life in Los Angeles (aside from the millions of Latinos, of course). Sure, they were present, but so were Jews, Muslims, etc.

Here in Binghamton? The Catholic church pretty much seems to have a lock on the local religious market. When I moved here, it seemed to me that there was a Catholic church in just about every neighborhood; that, just like the local dive bars, there was one for each little enclave.

Apparently this perception was dead on: The little city of Binghamton (about the same population and geographic size of Rancho Palos Verdes) has no fewer than TEN Catholic churches, each with an enrollment averaging about 2,000 people. That means that 20,000 people, or nearly 1/2 of the population of the entire city, is a registered parishioner at one of these ten churches.

And it is true, in practice. It seems that EVERYONE around me is Catholic. In fact, a lady at the gym the other day was shocked that I didn't know what a "feast day" was (it's an east coast Italian Catholic thing, apparently, and sounds very idolatrous to me). She exclaimed, "What? aren't you CATHOLIC?" well, I happen to be, thanks for assuming, lady.

These many, small churches are based on an immigrant model, with each one typically catering to an immigrant population that lived in the enclave (recall that waves of immigrants came over in the first part of the 20th century to work in the shoe factories and as cigar rollers). That means we have St. Cyril's for the Slovaks, St. Patrick's for the Irish, St. Anthony's (pronounced "Saint Ant-nee's") for the Italians, St. John's for the Ukrainians, etc.

The reason I know all these Catholic church fun facts is that the Diocese of Syracuse right now is having to get serious about possibly closing and/or merging some of these churches. With the population at 1/2 of what it was 50 years ago, and also a dramatic decrease in the number of priests, the church simply cannot support these parishes.

Which brings me to my story for this morning: I chose to go to St. Patrick's (photos above) not just because it is a lovely 10 minute walk from my house (there are so many churches, I could easily walk to several of them!), but because it is the oldest one and has the most incredible architecture. Isaac Perry was the architect, and he also designed a lot of important structures like the N. Y. State Capitol in Albany and the Binghamton Psych Hospital back in the 1870s.

As I sat there in mass, awe-struck by the 100+ foot tall vaulted, fanned ceilings, I was impressed with the sheer volume of the airy space. I guess I'm starting to think like a local, though, because I was thinking that their heating bill must be thousands of dollars (our house, in the winter months, costs $400 to keep it barely non-icy!) and no wonder they cannot afford to maintain all these churches around here.

No sooner had I had the thought, than it was time for the collection. The lady announced that the first collection would be for the church, as normal, but the second collection would be for . . . the heating bill! No joking- I couldn't make that one up. Needless to say, I was happy to contribute to both, and happy for a warm place to enjoy the architecture and soak in a little Jesus at the same time.

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