‘Some place better’

Even though 4,174 baptized Catholics live within the parish boundaries, only a fraction attend weekly Mass. The three-story school, which once had four first-grade classes with 60 children each, closed six years ago with just over 170 students total. In 1960, the parish had 85 percent Sunday Mass attendance. By 2012, it was 16 percent and dropping.

My parents, Jack and Betty, were founding members in 1956, and my three sisters and I graduated from the school. We received all of our sacraments at SJW.

The closing Mass, at noon on June 29, was well attended, but I could not bring myself to go.

Three weeks later on a Sunday morning, I drove to the shuttered church. I’m not sure why. I didn’t plan it. I parked where my father always parked our aging blue ’59 Impala — behind the sacristy. I was alone in the vast, empty parking lot. It was just before 11:15 a.m., always the biggest Mass at St. Joe’s when I was a kid, but the carillon was silent.

I walked the grounds. Memories came. Father Pryor hearing Saturday confessions while his old German shepherd, Queenie, snoozed in the last pew. Sister Amanda making her way from convent to church on her cane. Sunday roller skating at the parish social hall. My late father’s embrace at the sign of peace.

I snapped photos with my iPhone. A woman in a red car slowed, stopped and called over, “Are you a real estate guy?”

No, I said.

“Shame about this, huh? This was my school,” she said.

We chatted. She only occasionally attends Mass.

I asked why.

Sundays are busy, she said. Errands, driving the kids. She’s tired after a week of work, too. Not that she’s given up on God. She assured me she’s “spiritual,” which is more “important than religion.”

There was a GPS navigation device suction-cupped to her windshield.

I asked: “Would you ever go to someplace far away, a place you’ve never been, without using your GPS?”

“Never,” she said. “I depend on it. What did we do before we had them?”

“We got lost. A lot. At least I did,” I said.

We laughed. I told her that’s how I see spirituality and religion. Spirituality is knowing there is some place better for us. Religion is the GPS, directing us how to get there.

She hadn’t thought of it that way, she said. “It’s not an original idea,” I said. “It’s C.S. Lewis.” Never heard of him, she said.

We parted.

I continued walking the silent grounds, noting statuary that will, by summer’s end, be obscured with overgrown vegetation and weeds.

An older man in a Ford came up, perplexed. “You know when the next Mass is?” he asked.

The church is closed, I said.

“What! When?”

He took the news gravely. He said he hadn’t been to Mass in a few years, but now that his brother-in-law is ill with cancer, he thought he’d get back to it.

“You know if there’s Mass anywhere around today?” he said. My parish, Queen of the Universe, has a 1 p.m., I said.

“You speak Spanish?”

“I’m American,” he said.

“The Mass at Queen is in Spanish,” I said.

“That’s really something, isn’t it? This country,” he said.

Queen has a 5 p.m. “in English,” I said.

A little late, but it would do, he said. “Where’s Queen of the Universe?”

“You have a GPS?” I asked.

No, he said.

“You should. Keeps you from getting lost.”

J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.