The National Catholic Review
Francis X. Hezel
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Nickel City is what they called it years ago, when the image of the buffalo distinguished the coin. It was an image the city proudly embraced. For decades a shaggy, stuffed bison was on display in the city’s New York Central railroad terminal, once a grand place but long since boarded up, like so many other famous landmarks in Buffalo.

As I drove through the old neighborhood, the apartments in the low-income housing project in which I was raised seemed much smaller, so alien to me now. I looked for the familiar old markers: the A&P store where we shopped, the meat market that once provided sliced liverwurst, the Freddy’s Donuts store—all gone now. With a touch of nostalgia, I slowly drove along the route I had once walked to our parochial school. The streets, lined with two-story houses, hadn’t changed much; the trimmed shrubs suggested that the property was still well cared for. Yet the signs advertising each street’s “Block Club” seemed less a proud proclamation of social identity than a warning to would-be trouble-makers not to mess with the residents because they are watching one another’s back.

As I drove toward downtown, I passed the detritus of a Catholic city I had known in its glory days. Most of the Catholic high schools, which once numbered two dozen, have long since been closed, their buildings converted into health care centers. Those magnificent ethnic churches, their splendid pipe organs silenced, had become either evangelical churches or just another piece of blight in the city. The few that remained open seemed a shadow of what they had been. The Sunday congregation might number 60 or 70, many of the people as old as I.

My drive was intended to recapture the spirit of the past, but at the end I felt cheated. Where were the familiar features of my childhood? The streets were still there and some of the buildings—the skeleton of the past—but not the warm features that I would have liked to revisit. Everywhere I looked there was decay and loss. I should have known that there is no going home, despite the emotional tug to recapture our past and comfort ourselves in it. A sentimental journey like mine may be natural, but it is doomed to frustration.

I remember meeting, years ago, a woman then in her late 30s who had been raised a Catholic but had strayed too far to win a reputation for saintliness. She said that when she eventually returned she hoped to find the same church that she had left. Her eyes moistened when she spoke of the Latin Mass, the bells rung at the consecration and the smell of incense. She was looking for the sights and sounds and smells of the old church, just as I was looking for the features of my old neighborhood. If she ever returned to the church, she may have felt cheated by what she found there even as I had in returning to my home.

There are many of us who would gladly freeze time, if we could only enjoy the warmth and security of the past. The Latin prayers, benediction, the exposition of the sacrament were all part of our comforting ecclesial neighborhood once upon a time. Many grumble, as I did, that everything has changed so much that it no longer even reminds us of the home we once knew.

I caught myself contemplating an urban renewal program, when I might better have simply cherished those fond memories of childhood without trying to recreate the past. Those who have remained in Buffalo, less than half of its population 50 years ago, hold on to the hope that their city, for all the loss and blight, is in a constant state of rebirth. I’d like to believe the same about the church, even if the Latin prayers and incense remain no more than fond memories.

Comments

Paul Prozeller | 7/28/2011 - 10:14am

Father Hezel,

I drove through the area you mentioned when I attended the reunion of our Canisius High School class of 1956 in June. I took Kensington from Williamsville to Main, to the school. Kensington was nice until I entered Buffalo, then all I saw were slums. One of the first streets I passed was Orleans, where my cousin Joe (class of 1957) grew up. A few years ago this was a beautiful street. Now it is a mess. The population is mainly poor blacks. Buffalo was not historically a black city. I doubt that many American blacks move to Buffalo because of the terrible economy there. I have heard that many refugees are brought there because of the huge number of vacant houses. If so, I wonder how they support themselves.

I have read that St. Gerard's church on Delevan is being moved to Atlanta. I was baptised there. It is a small version of the famous St. Paul's Outside the Wall in Rome.

Paul Prozeller

MARY BRESSLER | 7/4/2011 - 2:04pm
As I read this piece, I wondered what in fact would our reaction be if we went back to a place and it was exactly the same. Since our memories are filtered through our own lens of perception, might the exact same neighborhood not still seem different and unfamiliar? Perhaps the racism that was not obvious then would seem hideously offensive now. Or we might realize that in fact, people were not really any holier when the Mass was in Latin. Mass might have felt more reverent (and I don't know because I wasn't there), but did it better inform their lives outside of that hour a week?
And since we have indubitably changed throughout our lives, might we not find that our fond memories rely more on remembered sentiments than on actual events and circumstances? I used to think that Green Acres was hilarious. The last time I watched a rerun as an adult, I could not figure out why. I am a different person at 50 than I was at 10 or 20 or even 40.
Life is change. We might not always like it or welcome it, but we can't stop it. And we cannot turn the clock back no matter how much we want a "do-over" or a return to the good old days. If we could, we might find that our decisions the second time around aren't much better than the first. Or that the world actually wasn't better then.
mary jane mantzke | 7/3/2011 - 1:33am
Your comments, Fran Hezel, SJ, really did mean a lot to me. Too often people of all ages dwell in the past ...myself included! Your response gave me much to think about! Thanks for sharing.
Craig McKee | 7/1/2011 - 10:19pm
I would have expected the word RELICS in place of detritus from the author...
Allen Murphy | 7/1/2011 - 12:56pm
I am surprised that Fr. Hezel S.J.  relegates incense, bells, and latin to nostalgia. Our parish, Holy Trinity, rings the bells at the consecration, frequently uses latin for some music, and employs incense at some Masses. Sadly some Catholics, including priests, have forgotten the sense of awe, mystery and reverence in worship. These are not throw away accoutrements but help propel us into the mystery of God's life, love and abiding presence. Taking away elements like bells, latin, and incense lead us to reduce God to a mascot, the altar to a table, and prayer to merely an expression of community forgetting the "otherness" of God who is yet always present.   
John Wooding | 7/1/2011 - 12:19pm
From the perspective of a native south-side Chicago Catholic, I empathize with your nostalgia, but only a little.

I do not understand what "bells and smells" mean when I know most of my Catholic friends see no connection
between moral beliefs and the real world in which we live. What did the "bells and smells" atmosphere do to
make us more Christ-like in our view of political greed, economic greed, military "solutions" to or international problems,
and ecclesiastical guilt in the sexual crimes committed by priests? 

Let's not confuse nostalgia with Jesus' message of hope, compassion, and commitment to help make this world a better place.to prepare ourselves for our eternal lives when our life here is done.                 
NORMA NUNAG | 6/30/2011 - 1:54pm

I can really relate to this piece.  An acquaintance once said that we can't ever go home again!  I didn't quite understand him, until I visited home after my parents were deceased.  It felt so strange as the house they were living in was built after I had left home.  Nothing was familiar.  I felt so lost.  Home is where your parents are or were(the old house you were brought up in).  And when that place is not there anymore or that old home is located in another area, where is home for me?!  It took me a couple more visits before I could reconnect emotionally! 

Thanks for writing this piece, Fr. Fran.

PAUL EMERSON | 6/29/2011 - 12:29am
Fr Hezel, you have an odd way of making a point about hope and rebirth as you remember the city of Buffalo. You write of a "sentimental journey... and a drive to recapture the past..." but all I got from you was frustration over being cheated out of something from a city you left behind. By my count, your fond memories of the city of Buffalo were overshadowed by criticism and innuendo, suggesting a city full of blight, crime and Evangelical churches.  And though your words about Buffalo may be taken innocently by many readers who get your point, you've unwittingly done us and our struggling city a grave disservice by your negative expressions of nostalgia.  Thanks for the memories!  

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