Not even a church where miracles have occurred is safe from being closed for good in the American Northeast. On the weekend of Oct. 13, people who attended Mass at St. Anne’s Church and Shrine in Fall River, Massachusetts, were told that their iconic church — built by French-Canadian immigrants around the turn of the 20th century — will be shuttered next month.
“I’ve had to do this three times this weekend, and it doesn’t get any easier,” Father David Deston, the parochial administrator of St. Anne’s, said as he choked back tears while reading a letter from Fall River Bishop Edgar da Cunha, who will celebrate the parish’s last Mass on Nov. 25, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
“I do this with a heavy heart, knowing the genuine deep loss you all will feel,” Bishop da Cunha wrote.
Slow, demographic death
Truth be told, even the most optimistic Catholic in the Diocese of Fall River saw this coming. The beautiful, marble-lined church, its nave lined by a gallery of saint statues carved with French inscriptions, had been ordered closed by the city since a large chunk of plaster fell off a wall during Mass in May 2015.
An architect estimated it would cost around $5 million to reopen the church, and $13.5 million to fully renovate and repair St. Anne’s. That may be a realistic fundraising goal for suburban parishes in affluent neighborhoods, but not in a city where the average annual income is a little more than $21,000 and unemployment hovers around 10 percent.
“We tried very hard to make it happen, but the resources were out of our reach,” Father Deston told the local daily newspaper.
That’s something Catholics in the region have heard over the last several decades as demographic shifts, economic displacement, dwindling Mass attendance and priest shortages have forced bishops to close and merge parishes and Catholic schools. And just like many ethnic, urban parishes built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, St. Anne’s was constructed within a short walking distance of about a half-dozen other parishes where Fall River’s other immigrant communities — the Polish, Irish and Portuguese — worshipped.
“You’re almost overbuilt for the 20th century. ... That’s led to painful mergers and closures,” Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, told Our Sunday Visitor in our 2016 series “Four Corners,” which explored Catholicism in different regions of the United States.
Despite its iconic stature in southeastern Massachusetts and inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, St. Anne’s — a blue marble, Romanesque Revival edifice with two distinct Fabergé egg-shaped bell towers that can be seen for miles around Fall River — fell victim to the same demographic and socio-cultural forces that are hollowing out the Church in the Northeast.
With the main church closed, parishioners, out-of-town visitors and local homeless people for the past three years have attended Mass in St. Anne’s basement shrine, where the remains of 19th-century French Dominican priests are still interred. Those Dominicans brought with them a wax figure of St. Concordia, the foster mother of St. Hippolytus, who was beaten to death in 258 A.D. by order of the Roman Emperor Valerian. The wax statue is interred at St. Anne’s Shrine in a glass case, accompanied by relics of St. Concordia recovered from the Roman catacombs.
A few feet away is a large, faded statue of St. Anne with the Blessed Virgin Mary as a young child, with the original French inscription, “Ste Anne et Marie,” still visible. In front of that statue is a small rock taken from a Crusader church in the Holy Land built over the traditional site of the home of Jesus’ maternal grandparents, Saints Anne and Joachim. Just to the right of the statue is a pile of crutches, braces and orthopedic boots. Over the decades, according to local histories, the faithful have left those items behind in thanksgiving after being healed while touching and praying before the stone from St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem.
As Fall River’s ethnic makeup changed over the decades, so did St. Anne’s. The basement shrine today includes side chapels for Portuguese devotions, including Our Lady of Fátima, which would have been unthinkable when the city’s ethnic communities had their own parishes. In his letter, Bishop da Cunha assured the local Catholic community that he would be forming a committee to find an appropriate re-use of St. Anne’s that “will preserve its architectural heritage in line with the needs of the community.”
The landmark building will hopefully remain standing, but it will soon no longer be a house of worship. And sadly, there are likely to be no more miracles.
Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.