Friday, December 02, 2005

More on "Infallibility and No Taste"

So there I was, a High Church Anglican in the middle of a bunch of first and second generation Slavs, in Johnstown for the folk festival. We're all in the Slavic Male Chorus of Washington DC and we've been slated to sing all of our performances at the tent in front of the Croatian church-- every time we sing another Serbian song, it seems as though the audience gets smaller.

The folk festival that year sat among one of the densest cluster of churches I've ever seen. Almost all of them are Catholic; and all the ones I saw were "ethnic" parishes. At one end is the Irish parish, and then a few blocks along the Italian parish. On another street there's the Croatian church, and in the next block a closed Hungarian parish. The next street over has a Polish parish and a few blocks from that is the Greek parish. Most of these are pretty good sized, and the exuberance of the decoration starts at overwhelming and escalates to jaw-dropping. It's a window into a Catholicism that has largely passed away where I live.

The most astonishing single object is the baldicchino in the Greek church. It's this huge polychromed terracotta thing with half-"lifesize" angels at each corner. Back in the early twenties, when it was ordered from Italy, it cost $250,000. Can you imagine that? It would be beyond price to make it now. And they're ALL like that. For an Anglican it's a relief to step into the little Lutheran church that sits in the center of the neighborhood and see nothing but plaster, dark wood, and brass. (I wondered why they were hawking pierogies, but then I found out that it's a Slovak Lutheran church.) I wish I could show you pictures, but none of these parishes appears to have a website.

The exception to this is the Croatian church I've mentioned several times. It's pretty small, in comparison with the others, but the exterior gives no clue that there's something wrong with the interior. But inside, anyone can see that something drastic has been done. The space is a square box with an apse, but there's nothing much in the apse. Instead, the altar has been moved to the "South" wall, on a low platform, with the seats arranged in circular rows. All hint of ornament has been supressed. And then, on the "West" wall, there's a reproduction of the Western Wall: huge grey-painted chunks of styrofoam. You may press slips of paper between the blocks, just as in Jerusalem.

Possibly the people didn't think much of this, because there was a pamphlet explaining how this arrangement is superior to what they had earlier. I of course had never seen to original furnishings, and I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have chosen them. But I felt my spirit sink when I entered it, as it is now, and I had to shake my head at what had been done in the Name of the Lord.

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