Last night I noticed that a Protestant friend of mine had liked a page entitled “Toowong’s Heritage — worth fighting for.” Curious, I clicked through to find that 2,500 people had petitioned to preserve a heritage-listed convent intact. It was dear to many locals as a boarding house for the local Catholic school, and included a chapel in the front room. The last remaining Sister of Mercy moved out in April 2017 before the property was sold to developers, who wish to subdivide it and turn it into a nursing home.
I was quite impressed by the fact that many non-Catholic and even irreligious people, such as the local Greens MP, had taken up this cause. What is it about beautiful sites of historical value that tug at the heartstrings of people?
This brought to mind a 2012 furor in Singapore over a sacrilegious party in the deconsecrated chapel of my mother’s old school, slated for Holy Saturday. A friend back home made a police report and encouraged me to do likewise. Later on, a reporter asked, “Why does it matter to you, when you are not even in Singapore?”
Aside from it being the chapel where my mother learned to pray and sing in English (since her parents spoke Teochew), to every Catholic anywhere in the world, an act of sacrilege is a wound in the Body of Christ. To us, every church where the Blessed Sacrament is found is a house of God our Father, and thus also our house. Even when the church has been deconsecrated and repurposed for some other use, its very architectural character hearkens back to its original purpose, and the sacred rites which hallowed its walls.
[Besides, that February I had attended a magnificent Orthodox ceremony in that very chapel.]
But what about non-Catholics, or lapsed Catholics who still care about our heritage sites?
Last December in Brisbane we saw a considerable groundswell against plans to install a café in a heritage-listed chapel here, which still functions like a parish church besides providing for the spiritual needs of the nursing home in which it is situated. A Buddhist, lapsed Catholic neighbor walked in after Mass one Sunday morning, exclaiming what a pity it was that the developers did not respect the integrity of the chapel.
Meanwhile, a few Catholics did not see what the fuss was about.
I think some people have a real sense of the importance of preserving the history of our built environment. It is a common lament among my Singaporean expatriate friends that, with old buildings being torn down and new ones springing up seemingly every few months, each time they go home, they can’t find familiar landmarks anymore. They end up lost and bewildered.
As we are physical beings, familiar surroundings lend us a sense of comfort, identity and belonging. Furthermore, historical sites invoke curiosity and wonder in quite a different way to modern buildings. As intelligent beings with a conception of time, we are able to appreciate the value of old places, where people lived and died before us. Heritage sites give us a feeling of connection with the people who once walked the streets we do now. They help us feel part of a community that extends not only over a local area, but also through time.
This is intensified in sacred sites, where people encounter not only their earthly peers, but commune with God and the saints.
Australia is a relatively young country. It does not have the ancient buildings of Europe. As population pressure mounts, the landscape is steadily being transformed, sometimes with scant regard for the country’s heritage. Moreover, with the drive to modernize, glorious old art and architecture can sometimes be discarded over-hastily, without community consultation. When I saw old photos of Brisbane’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with side altars, a magnificent Epiphany altarpiece and murals depicting the history of Catholicism in Brisbane — which have all vanished — I felt robbed. It was painful.
“But after all, for us Catholics… a church… is more that just an ordinary spacious attractive meeting house. It is even more than just a house of prayer. It is the place for us where the living Presence of the Godhead dwells, it is the great audience chamber where the God made Flesh and Dwelt Among us is here constantly, here ready for you at all times, to listen to your prayers and your petitions. It is the one place, the one spot perhaps for each of us that is intimately connected with the most important, the greatest events of our lives.”
— George Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, 1939
Cathedrals are not medieval monuments but houses of life, where we feel ‘at home’: where we meet God and where we meet each other.
— Pope Benedict XVI, General audience in the Paul VI Hall, Rome, Italy, Wednesday 21 May 2008