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Once A Church, Now A Junkie Barn

Look at this story, from the Philadelphia Inquirer: [1]

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  [2]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.

More:

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 [1], 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 [3]. 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.

More:

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.

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "Once A Church, Now A Junkie Barn"

#1 Comment By Khalid On July 10, 2017 @ 7:39 am

This is a truly wonderful piece of writing. Thank you!

As the brilliant Peter Brown writes, civilisation always has to negotiate the tension between continuity and change (as do individuals). This goes back, in some sense, to your discussion of education and families..the idea of transmission, initiation into responsibility and wonder.

I think some people mistakenly think of tradition in negative terms ( for what,then, of the supposedly autonomous individual?)

But I think the first peoples were acutely aware of being centred and how character depends on a determination to hold on to it. To lose it is really a ‘fall’ or a falling away.

Thanks for the recommendation. Will take a look at the book. Could I also recommend J.lear’s fascinating ‘ Radical Hope’?

From that book:

God-Ah-badt-dadt-deah -is good. My commitment to the genuine transcendence of God is manifest in my commitment to the goodness of the world transcending our necessarily limited attempt to understand it. My commitment to God’s transcendence and goodness is manifested in my commitment to the idea that something good will emerge even if it outstrips my limited understanding of what that good is.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On July 10, 2017 @ 7:47 am

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?

We would be conquered by a culture that thought like us and invented the weapons to do it. Then our sacred track would become irrelevant.

We may look civilized, but societies are our wild red in tooth and claw. There is always a fight for dominance and resources, with only the strong having peace.

#3 Comment By DM On July 10, 2017 @ 8:03 am

That was my grandmother’s church. My parents were married there. The parish had something like 10,000 families, and there were two 3000 family parishes in Kensington on top of that, and a Catholic orphanage too. It was still a good neighborhood in the early 80s.
Crime and punitive taxes drove white flight and killed Kensington, and a massive loss of faith among all demographics led to the demise of the church.
This is what civilizational collapse looks like.

#4 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On July 10, 2017 @ 8:32 am

Man, you write about important matters. But you natter on, with endless quotes. You need a ruthless editor.

[NFR: Had your coffee yet, Pops? — RD]

#5 Comment By Lily Lee On July 10, 2017 @ 8:36 am

Great article! Thoughts for the soul…and more!

#6 Comment By Lee (in KY) On July 10, 2017 @ 8:44 am

A few blocks over from where I live is an unconsecrated church that has been turned into a “gastropub.” (Man, do I hate that term.)

Wife and I checked it out once and it was just too precious. EVERY beer was craft, ALL food was localvore, quirky, organic, and just too too trendy, hip, with a hint of smug. Also, overpriced.

The story at the center of this post is awful, with a whole waterfall of tragedies getting ready to spill, but…

This gastropub has been stewing in my head for a while. A metaphor of societal change: a building once consecrated to worship God, now used in the service of a new religion, a new worship.

(PS: When you came to Louisville and ate at Jack Fry’s, this place is almost directly across the street from them.)

#7 Comment By Jack B. Nimble On July 10, 2017 @ 9:24 am

Mr. Dreher uses the story and images of a ‘junkie barn’ in Philadelphia as evidence of a culture in crisis and in steep moral decline. Fair enough — no one can defend what is going on inside that deconsecrated church. However, there is an important backstory to that former Catholic church that he ignores.

The former Ascension of Our Lord church in Philadelphia was deconsecrated in 2012, but the pictures Mr. Dreher references show that the church was basically abandoned in place – pews and other furnishings were left behind rather than being removed or destroyed – big mistake!

Also, pictures from 2011 [not referenced by Mr. Dreher] show that the former Ascension of Our Lord church was allowed by Church authorities to deteriorate badly on the inside and outside even before deconsecration. In other words, the church was allowed to become an urban eyesore, and the Catholic church basically became a passive slumlord.

Then the property has sold for $800,000 to an absentee ‘developer’ who failed to secure the grounds and allowed the building to deteriorate even more. Apparently, the Church put few if any conditions on the sale – another mistake!

Finally, until the story hit the local papers, the Philadelphia health and safety officials were AWOL.

Lots of blame to spread around, but surely the Roman Catholic church has been derelict in its duties to the local community.

#8 Comment By Mike On July 10, 2017 @ 9:29 am

Deconsecrate a culture and society, and it becomes much harder to hold it together.

This reminds me of Rusty Reno’s argument in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Drawing on Charles Murray’s research, he makes the case that the cultural elites are perpetrating class warfare on the working class by deconsecrating the social fabric upon which the working class depend. He then charges the Christian Church to defend the weak by reconsecrating this fabric.

#9 Comment By Fred Garvin On July 10, 2017 @ 9:30 am

Religion is the opiate of the masses, really though, isn’t it? Now it’s just obvious.

[NFR: No, religion is the lifeblood of the masses. Anything that we treat as God that is not God is the opiate of the masses. — RD]

#10 Comment By lancelot lamar On July 10, 2017 @ 9:38 am

We all need transcendence. Ascension of Our Lord indeed.

From the photos it looks like that church was a place of transcendence, built solidly in 1914 to last forever. It did not even make it a century in the midst of the turbulent changes that wracks and wrecks our cities.

I would like to know more from DM about that neighborhood and the changes there.

#11 Comment By Roland P. On July 10, 2017 @ 9:49 am

Well Philly is going to get worse unfortunately.

All the mayor and everybody is concerned about is trying to extract them on money from the people that live there look up the Philly soda tax which is causing massive job losses and they haven’t thought about the fact this is going to start causing restaurants to close as well because I just can’t make a profit Phillies going down the tubes that’s what you get for 75 years of Democratic rule.

#12 Comment By Roland P. On July 10, 2017 @ 9:51 am

Darn I hate this automatic word selection.?

#13 Comment By MichaelGC On July 10, 2017 @ 10:24 am

Lee (in KY) says on July 10, 2017 at 8:44 am:

This gastropub has been stewing in my head for a while. A metaphor of societal change: a building once consecrated to worship God, now used in the service of a new religion, a new worship.

That made me think of these lines from Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock, and the sentiment is exactly the same as what you mused upon.

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City,
Where the River flows, with foreign flotations.
There I was told: we have too many churches,
And too few chop-houses.. . .

#14 Comment By David J. White On July 10, 2017 @ 10:30 am

I lived in West Philadelphia in the 80s during the height of the crack (and homelessness) epidemic. Bad as that was, it sounds as if this is a great deal worse.

#15 Comment By Stay At Home Wife On July 10, 2017 @ 10:31 am

All. The. Feels.

But how to help? Where to begin?

Come, Lord Jesus.

#16 Comment By Mrs. Friday On July 10, 2017 @ 10:32 am

That story is so heartbreaking; those men seem so hopeless. The last photo in the gallery shows the exterior of the church with a cornerstone indicating that magnificent building was built in 1914. That’s barely a hundred years ago. The diocese I live in, which is growing and thriving at present, is preparing to dedicate a spectacular new cathedral this summer. I hate to think that it may very well be in the same state as the one in Kensington in less than a generation, but it would not surprise me. Perhaps not a shooting gallery, but an empty and abandoned husk.

#17 Comment By RR On July 10, 2017 @ 10:40 am

quote: “Religion is the opiate of the masses, really though, isn’t it? Now it’s just obvious.”

As Raymond Aron wrote in the 1950s, Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals. It suppose today it would be cultural Marxism. That’s just obvious…

#18 Comment By collin On July 10, 2017 @ 10:41 am

Although this example is Philadelphia but if we are going to solve this crisis, can we not just assume the same old stereotypes here? Judging by the comments there is lots of complaining about the same old ‘inner cities’ stereotypes while the Opoid Crisis is hit rural America a lot harder. We knew somebody that moved from California to Missouri and they were surprised that crime and drug usage is not lower in Missouri. This crisis seems frozen with action as there is no good a political constituency to lead the effort.

In terms of moving forward:
1) The main moves of new frontiers are our economic elite that drive 70% of the economy. So how do get them to change seems impossible.
2) In terms of US history, these stories of people and communities being left behind have always been part of our history. Watch any good John Ford movie (Searchers, Grapes of Wrath, Liberty Valance, etc.) for these stories.

#19 Comment By mrscracker On July 10, 2017 @ 11:03 am

Lee (in KY) says:
A few blocks over from where I live is an unconsecrated church that has been turned into a “gastropub.” (Man, do I hate that term.)

Wife and I checked it out once and it was just too precious. EVERY beer was craft, ALL food was localvore, quirky, organic, and just too too trendy, hip, with a hint of smug. Also, overpriced.”
****************
That’s an irritation we have in common. Anymore when I see a menu citing that kind of stuff: “locally sourced, organic, paleo, artisanal, heirloom, etc.” I eat elsewhere. I guess it’s the service industry’s version of “virtue signaling.” And an excuse to charge more for meager portions.
There’s a funny Portlandia episode where a couple asks their waiter about the origin of the organic chicken on the menu & one thing leads to another until they’re members of the cult/commune where the chicken was raised.

#20 Comment By Will Harrington On July 10, 2017 @ 11:22 am

“Lots of blame to spread around, but surely the Roman Catholic church has been derelict in its duties to the local community.”

This is because you think of the Church as some sort of big, corporate institution, but it’s not. It is made up of small, local communities called parishes. Most churches are structured this way. The parish has a duty to its local community, of course, but does that mean that, if this parish fails and dwindles away, that this duty remains in the same way, with the same force? Of course not. The overall institutional church exists because it has duties to support its parishes, but if the parish ends up being constituted by a few pensioners then it becomes inappropriate to criticize the church for failing in its duties. The overall institution has, by the very nature of things, limited resources. Different churches have different degrees of wealth, of course, and differing degrees of success in using that wealth to help the poor, but when a local parish has neither the wealth or demographics to support its buildings, then exactly what do you expect of them? Most churches can’t possibly afford to maintain buildings as museums and if the community members are not contributing to the parish then how can the community be surprised when the parish fails. This wasn’t the church failing the community, this was just a community failing. It’s happening all over the place as people mistake on line echo chambers with real communities and contribute little to the communities around them.

#21 Comment By Sophistry On July 10, 2017 @ 11:41 am

This is the antithesis which illuminates the meaning of the word “hope.”

Hope begets progress.

I know that area quite well. I have lived there. Never touched drugs while there.

ive also seen the remnants of the proud working classes of the city. They hold on and do well. Lately I’ve been thinking of a homeschooled family I knew in my childhood. They were mocked, including by me. But now the kids are grown and they’ve turned out well. They were in a bubble and were shielded from the depredations of the world, and god bless them for making it.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 10, 2017 @ 11:54 am

Apparently for at least some of them, it is NOT atheism or absence of any faith in God that brought them to this pass. Witness, the young man who has a sense that its probably wrong to do this here, but, he feels safer being in God’s house.

This condition of life is a tangled web to unwind, with many contributing causes. I can well believe they would turn down the social workers, knowing that what the social workers have to offer will not prevent them being back here again in a month, or a year.

It is quite possible that SOME of them could be brought out of it by a determined, but compassionate religious engagement. But it takes more than faith to get someone into a rewarding line of work, with a modest home, and sufficient self-confidence to throw away their addiction. Plus, of course, addictions are physical, chemical, and not easy to throw away even if the crutch is no longer needed.

This gastropub has been stewing in my head for a while. A metaphor of societal change: a building once consecrated to worship God, now used in the service of a new religion, a new worship.

Well, frankly, if the church can’t fill the pews, then something needs to fill the space, or, as the old saying goes, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. See Jack B. Nimble’s sobering account of how this space in Philadelphia came to be a vacuum.

Drawing on Charles Murray’s research, he makes the case that the cultural elites are perpetrating class warfare on the working class by deconsecrating the social fabric upon which the working class depend.

That’s reasonable. I live in a neighborhood where a lot of people still go to church. Most of them are African American. Apparently the “white” working class listens to the elites more? To the rulers, religion is merely useful. If it doesn’t seem useful any more, they stop pushing it.

#23 Comment By George On July 10, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

Wonderful.

Ross describes the exact opposite of the modern mentality, and what separates it from tradition and religion – submit to the universe, rather than impose oneself on it.

The problem is these young junkies are refugees specifically from the “modern” mindset – they have found no comfort and fulfillment in the ideal of imposing oneself on the world rather than attuning oneself to it. They reject the ideal of “accomplishment” as understood by modernity as barren (imposing one’s ego on the world, changing it, etc).

What can social workers offer these young junkies? Simply more of the modern world, more chances and opportunities to somehow find a way to join the system of imposing oneself on the world, trying to change it – “accomplishment”, “growth”.

Since this ideal is precisely what has failed these youth, of course they instinctively reject it!

This is also the deep malaise of the modern West as a whole – the ideal that sustained us for the past 500 years – without sugarcoating it, “power”, called variously “accomplishment”, or “growth”, or “progress” – is felt to no longer be satisfying.

This is inevitable – mankind is not satisfied by power in any ultimate sense. The Grand Quest for power always ends in “decline” and “degeneration” throughout history, because it is inherently unstable – based on it is on the endless “more” – and deeply unsatisfying.

The West has just seen the worlds most sustained and serious attempt to base life on the quest for power – it lasted longer, and took us further, than any previous such quest. But of course it had to end in the current “decline”. It always does.

But we have not yet moved towards spirituality – which is an ideal that is beyond any conception of mere power in this world – so we have lost ourselves in frivolity and hedonism. We can no longer believe in the Grand Quest for power, but we have not yet replaced it with anything.

In a way, this is hopeful!

#24 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 10, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

“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.”

Oh for the tongue of a Kipling and the wit of a Mencken to give that paragraph the most profound contempt it deserves. To put it more simply, he could have written,”What if we became savages, fit only to be conquered and destroyed?”

Dante’s vision of the Inferno was a comic book. This is the very definition of Hell.

Our way is better. That way is a horror to contemplate and unworthy of civilized men. The past is dead. Let it rot with with the dead. Let its ways rot with the dead. It is a worthless impediment and if an old church becomes a refuge for drug addicts the solution is simple. Tear it down.

That is the proper way to deal with the edifices of the past. Tear them down. Let them be useless, pretty ruins for the tourists. Replace them with new and shiny, and when the new and shiny become old, tear them down in their turn.

Recognize that there is no permanence. All will be replaced. As far as civilization lasting, it will never go away, but rather be constantly changing, constantly evolving.

Civilization is eternal, though its forms are not. Learn to recognize the difference.

#25 Comment By W. Adderholdt On July 10, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

I was reading Émile Durkheim recently, and I learned that he was the man who coined the word [4]. I had thought that it meant something like ennui, but it literally means “without norms,” and Durkheim used the word to describe the derangement of a society without standards of behavior. That church is a visual metaphor for anomie.

#26 Comment By kijunshi On July 10, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

I’ve gotten to the point where laments about the desolation of man, superimposed upon a situation that could be fixed by a checklist even an amateur like me can write up, annoy me more than anything else.

Who is the current legal owner of Kensington Church? Clearly this is a public health disaster. Their feet should be held to the fire with swift legal action, until the building is secured and cleaned. If they cannot or will not, within a set (short!) period of time, the city should roll over the bulldozers and flatten the place.

What “help” are the do-gooders offering the current residents of Kensington Church? Does it include the following: 1) methadone to counteract the physical dependence on heroin; 2) counseling to help those with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) cope with the tragedy of their lives without drugs; 3) a safe place to live and sleep while the above are offered as long as needed without cost or condition, as addicts are incapable of keeping promises before treatment has been successful for some time; 4) meaningful job training that can provide them a ticket out of the hellhole that is Kensington? If not, eff ’em. I’d put two fingers up to their “help” too – the addicts themselves known well how self-serving such “help” is.

If none of those things can or will be done, leave the poor wretches in peace to die, and Kensington too.

#27 Comment By Jack B. Nimble On July 10, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

Will Harrington says:

“Lots of blame to spread around, but surely the Roman Catholic church has been derelict in its duties to the local community.”

This is because you think of the Church as some sort of big, corporate institution, but it’s not. It is made up of small, local communities called parishes. Most churches are structured this way. The parish has a duty to its local community, of course, but does that mean that, if this parish fails and dwindles away, that this duty remains in the same way, with the same force? Of course not.

OK, fair enough. As a non-Catholic I can accept that the RCC is not a corporate institution, and the Pope is not the CEO. But what if the local church officials are behaving in ways indistinguishable from corporate CEOs?

The decay of the church property described in Mr. Dreher’s post reminds me of Brian Alexander’s recent book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town [an antidote to JD Vance, BTW]. Alexander’s book tells how a series of absentee, predatory venture capital firms extracted cash from an old-line manufacturing company, Anchor-Hocking Glass, and left the physical plant a wreck in which machine parts were cannibalized and buildings abandoned as they became unsafe.

It sounds to me as though the cognizant RCC officials in Philadelphia extracted 800-grand from the sale of the decaying church property, but I admit that their motives are unclear. Should the property have become a museum? Of course not. But the church officials could, for example, have donated the property to a non-profit to become a drug-treatment facility or for other charitable use, like low-cost senior housing

Is that pie in the sky? Perhaps, but anything would have been better than the hellhole that the church property became after the sale to the absentee property developer.

#28 Comment By Robert Levine On July 10, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

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.

This story is a compelling metaphor. But metaphors aren’t proofs. Addiction – considered as an epidemic, rather than an individual illness – appears related to rapid and radical societal changes and the victims of such change. A loss of religious faith could be a part of that, but such changes can happen in the absence of such loss.

A good example is the “gin craze” in early 18th-century England. It had a measurable (and very negative) impact on both the birth rate and death rate in London. It was concentrated amongst the poor, many of whom were victims of the economic changes that caused the rapid urbanization of England. But it had nothing at all to do with desecularization – certainly not the kind that we’ve seen in the US.

#29 Comment By John On July 10, 2017 @ 2:40 pm

Unfortunately a shared mythos is needed to keep society from falling apart by looking reality in its inglorious face.
Reality is… nothing matters. All that awaits is death and destruction. A nice Catholic mythos at least gives people a free psycologist (priest) a community who at least pretends to care about them, and a promise for a afterlife(Hope) false religion is better than no religion ultimately.

#30 Comment By connecticut farmer On July 10, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

A slice of heaven reduced to a slice of hell. A metaphor for the times within which we live.

#31 Comment By KW On July 10, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

“I’ve gotten to the point where laments about the desolation of man, superimposed upon a situation that could be fixed by a checklist even an amateur like me can write up, annoy me more than anything else.

Who is the current legal owner of Kensington Church? Clearly this is a public health disaster. Their feet should be held to the fire with swift legal action, until the building is secured and cleaned. If they cannot or will not, within a set (short!) period of time, the city should roll over the bulldozers and flatten the place.”

That’s a good plan. I bought my first home in this medium-sized midwestern town in a nice part of town made up mostly of beautiful old houses. On the north side of mine, however, was a section 8 duplex, and I came to find out that the folks in the front were selling crack out of the window that faced my house. The neighbors on the street knew and were up in arms; the city manager lived on the corner. A little digging revealed that a “good old boy” who apparently was mayor at one time owned the place, which may have been responsible for the local law enforcement’s hesitancy to shut the place down. My point is, you’d think it’d be a lead-pipe cinch to shut down a place like that, but it ain’t always so.
My first thought upon reading this article was the late Jack Rose’s composition.

#32 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 10, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

This is because you think of the Church as some sort of big, corporate institution, but it’s not. It is made up of small, local communities called parishes. Most churches are structured this way. The parish has a duty to its local community, of course, but does that mean that, if this parish fails and dwindles away, that this duty remains in the same way, with the same force? Of course not. The overall institutional church exists because it has duties to support its parishes, but if the parish ends up being constituted by a few pensioners then it becomes inappropriate to criticize the church for failing in its duties

This is an interesting question.

There are some Roman Catholic parishes that are rolling in dough. They have wealthy congregations, the collection plates are full, and they are more than able to meet the service needs of their community (and if it’s a wealthy community, there probably aren’t as many mouths that need feeding).

There are others that are full of power people, both within the Church and without.

What obligation should the former have to the latter (both in moral terms, and in terms of canon law)? Does the Church collect surplus funds from wealthy parishes or dioceses to keep poor ones afloat? Or is too much money spent on architecture and such?

(During the sex abuse scandal, the Church went to great lenghts to argue in court that the books of its constituent dioceses were separate–and that fund held by one diocese, or by Rome, should not be ever used to pay damages awarded in another).

#33 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 10, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

Poorer people, not power people.

Cursed be he who writeth autocorrect algorithms that foul mine prose so spectacularly! Maledicat Dominus!

#34 Comment By Olivier On July 10, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

Rod, I don’t understand what you are saying in “But this is surely one of them”: what, which reason is “this” here?

#35 Comment By AubreyMaturin On July 10, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

Thank you for relaying this heart crushing story. God bless the priests and nuns helping these people. I just donated.

[5]

It’s not common to read in a mainstream newspaper such poignant longing and respect for God. Pope Francis called the church a field hospital in the midst of battle. As always when I read about addiction and its consequences, I’m overwhelmed by the tragedy of these broken lives. God bless them and those who would be their caretakers.


In the half-light, they could make out thin forms. Some shot heroin in the pews, some laid half-naked on mattresses. Others stumbled past in their stupor, not noticing the priest and nun in their presence.

Father Murphy did all he could think to do. He began to bless them.

“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.”

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.

Across the hall, in what looked to be a former devotional chapel, someone had spray-painted a plea: “Forgive me, father, for my sins.”

#36 Comment By Rob G On July 10, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

A look back at a society more modern than Ross’s native peoples but reflecting a still fairly traditional culture can be found at Charles Fish’s book In Good Hands, a memoir of his summers as a Vermont farm boy in the 1940’s. Patrick Deneen has on more than one occasion recommended this book, and I’m about half way through it now, after just reading Deneen’s Conserving America?

Fish’s description of the “world view” of his farming grandparents and great aunts and uncles sounds remarkably similar, at least in its broad lineaments, to that of the Canadian natives, especially as capsulized in the last couple paragraphs of Ross’s that Rod quotes.

And it’s important to note that these folks Fish writes about were not anti-progress. They had a car, a truck, a tractor, electricity. But their mentality towards these things reflected a measured acceptance of them: the good that they provided was seen as being based on their contribution to the overall harmony of the family and the farm, which in turn reflected the overall harmony of the created order. Lose that sense of harmony culture-wide, and the fabric starts to fray.

Roger Scruton commented on this in his recent book The Soul of the World:

“The process of secularization can be understood from the example of Rousseau. It involves clearing away from the Lebenswelt all the threads of pious observance that cannot be replaced by free choice and self-made obligations. The world is remade without the transcendental reference, without the encounter with sacred things, without the vows of allegiance and submission, which have no other justification than the weight of inherited duty. But it turns out – and this is what I shall try to show in the chapters that follow – that those vows were far more deeply woven into the fabric of our experience than enlightened people tend to think, and that the world without transcendent bonds is not a variant of the world that had not yet been cleansed of them, but a completely different world, and one in which humans are not truly at home.” (pp. 94-95)

“reminds me of Brian Alexander’s recent book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town [an antidote to JD Vance, BTW].”

Nah. Alexander's book is far more of a complement to Vance than an "antidote," I'd say.

#37 Comment By Joan On July 10, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

Civilization is eternal

Sorry, Uncle Chuckie, but I couldn’t let this bit of wishful thinking pass.

I once heard some scientist, interviewed on NPR or something, explaining the destructive potential of the carbon crisis. He said that, if modern humans have existed for a hundred thousand years (the current best guess based on the evidence) then why didn’t we have civilization fifty thousand years ago? His answer was that the climate wasn’t stable enough to allow for agriculture. Civilization requires the level of food production made possible by reliable weather. If the climate destabilizes to the point that agriculture is no longer possible, there will be a population crash, the cities will be abandoned, and our descendants will be paleo for realz.

#38 Comment By DM On July 10, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

The diocese held onto Ascension Parish even after it was clear that the old Catholic neighborhood was gone. For some time it was the inner city “sister parish” supported by a wealthier church in the suburbs. The church had few regular parishioners and could not support itself, I don’t see how the diocese could have done anything else but cut its losses. I think the stained glass and some of the fixtures were given to a suburban church in Northern Virginia. Plenty of other churches in Philly that suffered the same fate. It is the same thing that has happened to hundreds of urban parishes all over the Northeast, and which will keep happening for the foreseeable future.
Kenso was a good neighborhood and older people from there are salt-of-the-earth types. “You can take the kid out of Kenso…” etc. My mother fondly recalls dances at St Joe’s orphanage, that was where her dad was educated. Philly had a tremendous parochial school system, as good as Baltimore or NYC, if not better. The church of Philly was, quite literally, built by saints: people like St John Neumann and St Katherine Drexel.
I remember playing in the streets at night as a kid in the early 80s, it was safe. By the early 90s thieves were breaking into my grandmothers house and my cousin from down the street was being chased home from school every day by Hispanic kids armed with broken bottles. Crime, the Philadelphia Wage Tax and demographics chased out people who had options.
As far as Kensington is concerned the apocalypse is now. That culture / ecosystem is dead. It is not coming back. That is why concepts like the BenOp are important. The material blight might not be everywhere, but the spiritual blight is.

[NFR: Yes, to be sure, I do not know much about the situation on the ground, but I would not be quick to blame the Archdiocese for the fate of that particular church. A lot of Catholics love to gripe about their diocesan leadership for closing parishes, and sometimes those gripes are valid. But the truth is, you cannot keep churches open indefinitely without the people, the money, and the priests to support them. The Catholic Church is not the phone company. — RD]

#39 Comment By JonF On July 10, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

Re: His answer was that the climate wasn’t stable enough to allow for agriculture.

He’s actually rather wrong. The Ice Age climate was quite stable, until it started to change at the end. It was, unrelievedly, cold and other quite dry for millennia.
It was the fairly rapid change in climate when the cold ended that sparked the agricultural revolution. With animals and plants suddenly displacing from their millennial ranges to choice was to either follow them or else find some other way of obtaining food. Many chose to follow the food supply. Some few, in the Middle East, China, Mesoamerica, West Africa, Peru and New Guinea chose another path.
To be sure, I would not dismiss out of hand the possibility that there may be far fewer of us around in five centuries– or in one. But the most efficient predator on Man is Man– even fearsome old Yersinia pestis is a distant second. I do not see climate change altering that reality.
Also, when the going gets tough, evolution takes off, often with a bang. And soon enough evolution will not just be a blind watchmaker, but for good or ill it will have human intent behind it.

#40 Comment By Anne On July 10, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

There’s a lot going on here, but I’m not sure much light is shone on the situation by trying to make it a metaphor for some doom-and-gloom scenario involving “the West,” the Christian churches, Christianity per se, or the end of Western civilization as we know it.

Absentee landlords are a notoriously irresponsible lot, and if and when Christian leaders fall into this category of human, they deserve scathing criticism no less than any of the rest. There’s nothing wrong in itself with church communities moving on. Most of the immigrant communities that built these churches eventually assimilated successfully into American society, made enough money to buy homes in the suburbs and left their old homes in droves as poorer Americans moved in to take their places. Unfortunately, America’s poor and working classes have been getting poorer by the decade for 40-plus years now, thanks to the voodoo economics that was supposed to lift all boats, but crushed the smaller under the weight of the larger instead. Drugs, which humans have long used for comfort, especially in situations of long-term hopelessness, were initially touted as the opiate of the colored classes in America by Nixon’s War on Drugs. The message was clear: Those particular people simply lacked the character to resist, and more ordinary Americans could feel content, knowing the problem at would stay in the inner city as long as the drug warriors kept it away from ordinary teens and the better parts of town. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, that assurance has been disappearing, thanks to the sudden disclosure by a few writers that the poorer white classes have also succumbed to this particular comfort, and seemingly overnight Congress declared an opiate “epidemic” sweeping certain parts of Ohio and Kentucky. Just how relatively bad it is in this part of Philadelphia is anybody’s guess. But clearly junkies shooting up in an abandoned cathedral provides a dramatic visual for claims about the decline of Christianity in the West.

But is such a sweeping indictment either accurate or fair? Yes and no. Clearly, those junkies ARE in decline, as is their world, which more or less corresponds to the neighborhood around the onetime church building. But do they correspond to “the Church,” or “the West”? Not likely. After all, no matter how much Jesus loved the poor and like the early church fathers, demanded the faithful focus on their needs, today’s Church is a largely rural and suburban institution, at least in America and most of the West. And as for the rich, they’re getting richer and doing all the things the rich do to bolster the culture of their worlds, especially in the West (and those parts of authoritarian societies such as oligarchic Russia and the upper echelons of China and the Middle East).

So what do the goings-on in this old, abandoned Cathedral of Kensington mean? I’d say it means the Christian community that once lived there has abandoned both the church building and the neighborhood around it for greener pastures, caring little or not at all, or so it seems, for the less fortunate left behind. That, to me, is really a bigger indictment of the Church than all the more philosophical and metaphorical commentaries combined.

#41 Comment By John Achterhof On July 10, 2017 @ 8:00 pm

It’s a striking illustration of the slide into decadence. While the forms of temptations have become stronger, more damaging, the institutions – marriage, church, community – that have served by way of mutual support and accountability to buttress the individual against letting go, against giving in to impulsiveness, have weakened. In this case the building that once served to keep people in the community on the straight and narrow has been repurposed in this new age as a venue for self-destruction.

#42 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 10, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

The parish has a duty to its local community, of course, but does that mean that, if this parish fails and dwindles away, that this duty remains in the same way, with the same force?

Jack B. Nimble beat me to the obvious, but ANY property owner has a responsibility to maintain or transition their property. Ethically for sure, and a church should feel that more than most. Legally in many ways, although laws are often honored in the breach. If you own the property, and it becomes an eyesore, or worse, a real hazard, to your neighbors, you pay for it. If your abandoned building catches fire, and takes down a functional building next door, your insurance company is on the line.

Further, in the Roman Catholic Church, the property is vested in the church, at least at the level of the diocese, not as property of the local parish. That is, in a worldly sense, why the diocesan authorities can so easily close certain churches and merge others. Its their property, legally speaking. It is their obligation to fix the problem, so long as they hold title, whether they have spiritually decommissioned it or not.

#43 Comment By Ken’ichi On July 10, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

That bit about the deconsecrated church, is that not the symbol of a culture which has no future? The people feeding their addictions showing the behavior of a defeated people who know that the future belongs to others?

And those exerpts [is that spelled right?) from Rupert Ross are very good.

>>Collin

2) In terms of US history, these stories of people and communities being left behind have always been part of our history. Watch any good John Ford movie (Searchers, Grapes of Wrath, Liberty Valance, etc.) for these stories.

After all, America was built by, and it’s people mostly descended from, people who when the going got tough, moved away elsewhere. From “Pilgrims” to “wagon trains to the West” to “white flight”, it seems that country’s “best and brightest” are more given to bend their efforts to seeking “greener pastures” than to stay and grapple with the problems of their place.

>>Rob G

And it’s important to note that these folks Fish writes about were not anti-progress. They had a car, a truck, a tractor, electricity. But their mentality towards these things reflected a measured acceptance of them: the good that they provided was seen as being based on their contribution to the overall harmony of the family and the farm, which in turn reflected the overall harmony of the created order. Lose that sense of harmony culture-wide, and the fabric starts to fray.

Yes, I can very much agree with this. A “culture-wide sense of harmony, reflecting that of the cosmic order” is very much what I seek to defend and preserve. Sure, the harmony and order I defend differs in many important ways from that of 1940’s USA; and as to which attunes better with the world, which one gave rise to the individualist, chaotic “anti-culture” which threatens both?

The world is remade without the transcendental reference, without the encounter with sacred things, without the vows of allegiance and submission, which have no other justification than the weight of inherited duty. But it turns out – and this is what I shall try to show in the chapters that follow – that those vows were far more deeply woven into the fabric of our experience than enlightened people tend to think, and that the world without transcendent bonds is not a variant of the world that had not yet been cleansed of them, but a completely different world, and one in which humans are not truly at home.

Excellent. Have I not defended here such things as the what I above bolded? A world where the bonds of inherited duty and hierarchy are cast aside is a world of antihuman disorder.

#44 Comment By Hypnos On July 10, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

RD, thank you very much for sharing this, because it articulates so well a worldview which I find alien. My parents are immigrants, from a culture whose greatest poetry and music celebrate the pastoral life from time immemorial. And yet, even in their later years, they always look ahead, finding comfort and purpose in making the next leap — as do I.

It’s just a difference in personality, I think.

#45 Comment By Franklin Evans On July 10, 2017 @ 11:51 pm

[6] puts the original report into accurate context. It is a context, Rod, which despite your time living here (and living at a physical remove from places like Kensington) you utterly missed.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Go back in time far enough, and Kensington was a sovereign municipality. So, too, were Mt. Airy, Germantown, Manayunk, Wynnewood. Other places, unincorporated or just organically grown from he city’s progress, were focused on something: Brewerytown, Port Richmond, Fishtown. The original city has for a very long time been called Old City, and it’s conditions (those that are left after commercial invasions) reflect its name.

And for just about forever, Catholic churches formed the cornerstone of many of those neighborhoods, and I’m here to tell you and all that many more such neighborhoods have lost their populations, some of them have lost their parish churches, and you’ll not hear about them (ahem, the part the really got my ire going) because their ensuing problems are not sexy.

I’ve come to love my Catholic neighbors. This and Upper Darby, all of it part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, are my home towns, my stomping grounds. Beauty marks and warts cover it all, but in the end they are all comprised of real people, and if any reader fails to see the click-bait, come buy our advertised products nature of this Kensington story, then that reader doesn’t know my city at all.

BTW, Kensington borders Fishtown.

#46 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 11, 2017 @ 12:38 am

If the climate destabilizes to the point that agriculture is no longer possible, there will be a population crash, the cities will be abandoned, and our descendants will be paleo for realz.

Nope. What happens is the population is reduced to a managable level, the excess population being turned into food. As we say in Cosimanian Orthodoxy, you never go hungry if you have neighbors. Hey one ridiculous science fiction scenario deserves another.

#47 Comment By Tim Bray On July 11, 2017 @ 1:40 am

Sad story, but it may be a very slight consolation to learn that (last time I checked the stats) heroin is, relatively speaking, compared to lots of other addictive drugs (by some measurements including alcohol) fairly recoverable. Which is to say, the chances are that quite a few of the losers in the church will get sober.

#48 Comment By Annie On July 11, 2017 @ 4:23 am

George, that was a wonderful comment. Thank you.

#49 Comment By Paul Clayton On July 11, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

I think the only way we will change this is to adopt the ‘tough love’ approach that the Chinese use for their drug addicts. They are put in work farms, or camps. Sounds cruel, huh? Made to get up every day, to work, to eat communally, to attend ‘AA’ type meetings. When they are ‘off’ the stuff, their craving under control, they are released. I have an adult son. If he was in a place like that, I would get a relative to help me and drag him out of there, and home. Like people used to kidnap their kids back from cults. The alternative is to let them die. That is not love.