If a church is its people, Sacred Heart-St. Columba’s died on Sunday.
The building remains, but its 200 people have been scattered, sent to build a new home at a dozen different churches because their former home couldn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills.
They left without weeping, without despairing — but they all agreed they won’t find another community like the one they left behind.
“Here, everybody was equal. No matter the color, they were all treated the same. I wish that were across the board,” said parishioner Mary Woods, who had to blink back tears during the final Mass on Sunday. “It won’t be like here.”
The church was well known for its tolerance — it opened the first youth agency in the city to which gang members and drug dealers were admitted, allowed the AIDS Council to hand out condoms in the church basement and let teens paint murals on the interior walls.
The Rev. Michael Hogan also took a crash course in Spanish, then started a second congregation at the church, welcoming Hispanics who wanted to pray in their native language. The English-speaking congregants supported him wholeheartedly — not only did they eagerly attend the occasional bilingual Mass, but they embraced Hispanic traditions without a qualm. Perhaps most notably, they listened solemnly to organ music during their regular Masses but swayed and danced to a guitar and tambourine during the bilingual Masses. One English-speaking congregant even switched Masses, because the Hispanics needed a reliable guitar player, and has played at their Masses for 11 years despite not understanding a word of Spanish.
That was the sort of dedication the parishioners had for one another. It was a devotion that took the Hispanic immigrants completely by surprise.
“This is the first church that opened its doors to the Hispanic community. It will always be special to us,” said Hispanic congregation leader Olga Tapia.
During the day, the church was never closed — the hungry knew they could get a free loaf of bread or a pastry in the rectory kitchen at any time, and two food programs brought meals to the elderly and teens on Hamilton Hill.
Now the rectory doors are locked and congregants are heading to churches in Schenectady, Rotterdam, Guilderland and a host of other places.
“It feels like part of our family’s getting dispersed,” said parishioner George Dunkel.
Hogan is heading to St. Joseph’s, just three-quarters of a mile away. But the Hispanic congregation will worship at St. Anthony’s on Seward Place.
Many of the English-speaking parishioners say they drove past other Catholic churches on their way to Sacred Heart-St. Columba’s every Sunday. Now they will join one of those closer congregations.
But some plan to follow Hogan.
“We just grew roots here,” said John Konik, whose family attended the church for 105 years even though they live in Rotterdam. “It feels like an extension of a family when you’re with these people. A lot of people are following Father Hogan.”
They credited Hogan with supporting the development of a congregation that accepts all people and all cultures.
Jill Dunkel said Hogan offered a better church experience than any other local priest.
“It focused on God more than the whole Catholic establishment,” she said. “Got back to the basics of church. Everyone was welcome no matter what. I never heard anything about the Bishop’s Appeal here.”
At other churches, she said, there was too much talk of finances from the pulpit, with priests asking for help in meeting the diocesan goal for each church.
Hogan had to navigate the financial straits at Sacred Heart-St. Columba’s tactfully. About 10 percent of the congregation lived on Hamilton Hill, many of them too poor to put a dollar in the collection plate. Jill Dunkel said those parishioners were never shamed for not contributing to the church — even when the church was on the brink of closure because there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.
Likewise, no one criticized the Hispanic congregation when it did not bring in as many donations as a group of its size normally would. And no one floated the idea of closing the church’s many social service agencies to save on utility costs during the week. Members said they would rise and fall together rather than jettison pieces of the church to save the rest.
Hogan tried to remind his parishioners that they had made the right choice Sunday.
“It is not, after all, the building that is critical. It’s the gathering. And we will all, I hope, continue to gather,” he said.
As inspiration, their first song included the refrain, “Sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and praise.”
Hogan is hoping for a smooth transition, but the church’s social services are still in flux. Both the youth program — Quest — and a food pantry that delivers to 250 shut-ins around Hamilton Hill will stay in the church basement. However, the church is for sale, and although a Protestant church group is considering the building, it’s not clear whether they would be willing to let Sacred Heart-St. Columba’s missions continue on their property.
For now, they will keep a Catholic presence on the Hill, one that they think is sorely needed, even if the church members can’t support it anymore.
They just hope that the diocese eventually figures out how to run churches in impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods, where they think the churches are most needed.
“I look at it as a challenging time,” said Sister Rosemary Sgroi, who has overseen three closures on Hamilton Hill in her years of Catholic ministry. “I think this whole process [of church closures] in the diocese is something many other dioceses are going to go through too. Where are we going to go from there?”