For nearly a century Ascension, with its towering columns and bell tower and interior that brought to mind the churches of Europe, was proudly nicknamed by parishioners the Cathedral of Kensington. It was deconsecrated in 2012 and sold two years later.
Now, the cathedral is a shooting gallery, a makeshift haven for young people who come to the neighborhood from all over for pure and powerful heroin – the latest place where they have taken up residence as the city attempts to address other Kensington heroin encampments like McPherson Square and the Gurney Street train tracks.
It is more proof, if anyone still needs it, that simply closing sites where people shoot heroin and pushing them from train tracks to park to church would be shamefully inadequate.
The building has the feel of an abandoned field hospital. Blankets and cardboard mattresses line the floors, the chapels, and the sacristy where priests used to robe. Needles litter the altars – and stick from the holy water font like crosses in a graveyard. Bloodied rags fill pews. Human excrement and condoms mar the confessionals.
Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.
“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”
Josh leaned against a pew Thursday afternoon, using a piece of wood from the rubble as a cane. His feet have grown raw. He said he was sick for the want of a hit.
Soon, he joined some friends and climbed a spiral metal staircase to a makeshift apartment filled with soiled mattresses, chairs, and school desks. All were covered with used syringes.
“Paradise Island,” cracked a guy named Matt.
Hovering around the drugs were Matt and Anthony, both 25 and from the Northeast. And Steven Sharp, who is 23 and used to be from Chester County. They talked of relapses and rehabs, of abusive parents, loving parents, lost union jobs and abandoned college courses, of hunger and thrown-away opportunities – and they shot heroin.
Please read the whole thing, and look at the pictures. Don’t miss the note at the end, which reads in part:
On both days, city social workers went to the site to offer help to those inside, but no one accepted their offer.
The reader who sent it to me writes:
Obviously, this is so sad and disheartening, but there it is — deconsecrate a church and it turns into a shooting gallery. That pretty much sums up what happens to a world that loses God. There are lessons here for the BenOp. Once the damage is done, it is so much harder to fix. The poor souls who are using that church, it doesn’t matter how respectful they try to be, how guilty they feel, how much they want to get clean, the odds are they will die from their addictions sooner rather than later. The heroin epidemic in Philly is out of control. The city tries to contain it – pushing addicts under bridges, etc – but eventually the epidemic, and its attendant problems, will spread outward. Most of us delude ourselves into thinking that problems can be compartmentalized, but they can’t.
I’m not quite sure why, but this story puts me in mind of this point made by Rupert Ross, in his extraordinary 2006 book Dancing With A Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality. Ross was an attorney for the Canadian government who worked with the First Nations peoples in rural Ontario. He couldn’t understand why it was so hard to communicate on legal matters with them, until he looked deeper into the matter, and came to understand how the native peoples constructed reality (e.g., their metaphysical assumptions). This passage is what came to mind after reading the Kensington cathedral story. Here, Ross is comparing the native way of framing their experiences to that of modern Westerners:
We see ourselves on a road, moving forward, progressing down some linear track that promises constant improvement and discovery, from cancer cures to life on Mars. Our eyes are forward, the past is of largely academic interest, the present only an instant we race through to arrive at a different tomorrow. In our belief system we dedicate ourselves to a single task: creating change.
But what if we did not have that conviction underlying our every thought, the conviction that tomorrow, for each of us, if we all work hard, there will be more and better everything? What if our conviction was not that we were born to continue travelling down an infinitely changing road, but instead, that our destiny was to repeat what had been done before, to walk in the footsteps of all who had gone before, to think the same thoughts they had already thought; to take, in effect, their place on the slowly revolving wheel of eternally repeating existence? What if we defined our lives not as occupying the new ground of our own discoveries but as revisiting ground already occupied by all our ancestors? … Each generation’s turn at the wheel might include performances better or worse than those of the last, but they would be essentially the same performances, with the same set and script and plotting.
To use another analogy, it would be something like a relay race which never ends, each generation passing the baton to the next for its turn around the track, the old and new generations running side by side while the transfer takes place, the older one slowing as the newer picks up speed. Each would go where the other had already gone, would come to see and hear and think what had already been seen and heard and thoughts by countless earlier generations. No matter who travelled it or when, the track would be common to all. It is little wonder, then, that the “track” would become sacred, for it would have been shared by all and have given sustenance to all since time beyond memory, just as it must provide sustenance into the infinite future. This is more than just an emotional tie to the land; the land itself is a tie to the communal past, present and future.
We post-industrial societies, in contrast, seem to run a cross-country relay race, passing the baton to a generation that will never set foot upon the ground we have covered, a generation that will never set foot upon the ground we have covered, a generation that will not know where we have been, that will never see our footprints. As we pass them the baton and watch them speed away, we have no sense of them visiting where we have been or coming, ultimately, to where we now rest. They simply go their own way, leaving us guessing about what they will find and about whether they will be equipped to handle it. The more remote their lives become from what we have known, the less confident we feel that we can know and understand them. And the more we are tempted to feel alone and in some fashion unconnected.
Man, we think, is by definition a restless soul always in search of new frontiers, new challenges. We suspect we would go made doing only what our fathers and mothers did, repeating their lives. How, we ask ourselves, can Native people lament the passing of a time when they lived under those limits?
I suspect, however, that they had no such sense of limits. In fact, they may have perceived their lives as holding a virtually limitless scope for challenge and accomplishment. We don’t see this, if only because we don’t share the same definition of accomplishment. As I suggested in the last chapter, their lives did not centre on building things but upon discerning things. Life’s challenge lay in observing and understanding the workings of the dynamic equilibrium of which they were a part, then acting so as to sustain a harmony within it rather than a mastery over it. [Emphasis mine — RD] One aspired to wisdom in accommodating oneself to that equilibrium, and that pursuit quite clearly promised unlimited scope for exploration and self-development.
Further, I suspect that they sought that wisdom not only to better ensure survival but also as an end in itself, as something in itself exhilarating. I recall how I felt after accurately predicting that violent hail-storm, and it was exactly that: exhilarated. It was not just that I was thankful to have side-stepped its full, destructive force. More significant by far was the excitement I felt at being able to say to myself “I was right! I am learning! I am becoming more open and discerning, more in tune with the workings of this universe around me!” Even that one, small accomplishment was thrilling. I’m not certain why, but I do know that the feeling far surpassed what I have felt in other endeavours, such as getting good grades or delivering a well-received speech. The sense of achievement seemed to come not because I had done something, but because I had become something. In some way, I felt that I had become more a part of our vibrant universe in that I had grown more attuned to it.
There are no doubt many reasons why those poor souls ended up strung out and living among needles, excrement, and rags in an abandoned church. But this is surely one of them — and one of the hardest to address, because it is the water in which we all swim. Deconsecrate a culture and society, and it becomes much harder to hold it together. We deny the weaver and somehow expect the web to reweave itself.