The Power of Place

Recently, I have been trying to convince myself to attend mass at the parish in which I grew up. After fifteen years away from my New Hampshire hometown I am spending the fall right in the middle of it since I’ve moved here to care for my mother. Being back in the spaces and places of my childhood has reminded me of how much I have changed since I left. But most challenging has been my struggle to redefine a relationship with the faith community once at the core of my life.

I have fond memories of my childhood parish, an impressive brick edifice rising over the city. It was here that I was an altar server and it was here that I sang “glory to God in the Highest” at the top of my lungs in the choir. But it was also in this space that I first identified the limits of what I began to call “comfortable Catholicism”. By high school I was frustrated with my fellow congregants. In my mind too many of them were people who faithfully attended mass on Sundays without embracing the radical change which I was beginning to feel my Catholic faith called for.

In the years since I have sought out Catholic churches very different from the one in which I grew up. I Kansas City I worshiped in a dilapidated building with Catholics from all over the world. In Minneapolis I worshiped with radical Catholics in a gymnasium. In Boston my Catholic community included women meeting in living rooms. And yet I can not ignore the call of this suburban church here in my hometown. Each time I drive by I feel a tug in the pit of my stomach. I think that this tug is a longing to make sense of my own faith journey and to reconcile where I am with where I’ve been. While I believe that “the church” is not synonymous with a physical building I am increasingly convinced that for me, the physical spaces of my Catholic identity loom large.

As I think about what it might be like to worship inside my childhood church I am worried. I assume that I will struggle at first to enter a peaceful, reflective place in my own heart. But still, I cannot shake the sense that this place–this very space–might still be important to my Catholicism. After all, this building literally holds segments of my faith journey. These fibers and beams and plaster housed, nurtured, and protected my earliest explorations of Catholicism. Might they be able to nurture my current questions and beliefs? Perhaps I will find out soon.

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello is a mother, wife, runner, and Catholic living and working in New England where she is a professor of American Studies. She also writes for the blog “The Public Humanist”.


4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth;
    I loved your blog essay about place. I particularly responded to the word “limits’ you use in it…I am currently working on an essay called “Limits” about being a Catholic woman in today’s church. Harvard Divinity School magazine will be publishing it this winter. I think I have enough voices in it, but if you’d like to talk to me about including yours, let me know. I have to turn the essay in by this friday.
    peace to you,
    barb Bodengraven
    Weston Jesuit School of Theology
    MTS 2005

  2. Barb,

    I would happily speak with you about “Limits”. The best way to reach me is via email

    Peace, Liz

  3. I have similar feelings whenever I return to my home church. While I am not there for the vast majority of the year, when I say my church, that is always the place to which I am referring. Also, physically, it has a striking effect on me, since it is the only place I have actually been in throughout my entire life. The smells, the angles, the way the light comes in… all are familiar in this unique way.

  4. I am really pleased that this notion of “place” has struck a chord. It is an issue that I am constantly aware of — in my church and elsewhere –and I know that for me, the sights,smells and spatial layour are deeply embodied in me. I have physical reactions to the spaces that have been part of my faith. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone.

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