God has abandoned the building – Shaw Local

God has abandoned the building – Shaw Local

God has abandoned the building – Shaw Local

I recently visited St. Stephen’s Church in Streator for the first time since it was permanently closed in October as a result of structural problems.

St. Stephen’s has long been known as the oldest Slovak Catholic church in the U.S. and was built, brick by brick, by people of faith.

My formative years and those of generations of families were spent in the parish church and at school.

As a student at St. Stephen’s School, religion was the central focus of our education. My siblings and I attended Mass every day for the entire time we were there. Within the church we participated in countless aspects of church life including Christmas concerts, the 40 Hours of Devotion, Christmas and Easter Masses, Advent, Lent, Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, First Confessions, and much, much more.

I received all the sacraments at St. Stephen’s, the most recent being the sacrament of matrimony on March 25, 2023, before anyone knew the church would be closing in a few months. I thank divine providence for that favor and for being able to take many photographs of the beauty of the interior.

Most importantly, as a young woman and adult, I spent many hours alone in quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, where I came to know Christ as a real presence in my life.

My own Christian beliefs have evolved over the years and I no longer agree with everything I was taught as a child, or with the institution and the flawed human beings behind it. But the parish was once a vibrant community of immigrants and Slovak descendants who were stubbornly faithful to their faith and cultural ways.

So the closing of this sacred space is no small loss in my life and in the lives of many others.

For better or worse, it has been a place where our souls developed.

The Peoria diocese has redesignated the church to profane building status, meaning it is no longer considered a sacred building and can no longer be considered desecrated. The school, parish hall and rectory have long since been demolished, and I assume the church will be next.

So before entering the church, with a lifetime of experiences etched in my spirit, I tried to prepare myself emotionally.

But I was not prepared for the deep and palpable feeling of lifelessness I found myself in.

Every piece of sacred art inside had been removed and put away, including the Stations of the Cross, the statues on the main altar and two side altars, and of course, the tabernacle, which once housed the life-giving consecrated Eucharistic host that Catholics believe to be the real presence of Christ.

If one word could describe what I felt and experienced during my brief stay there, it would be eerie.

I took a few photographs, but I didn’t dare take a picture of what was once an altar in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and where I lit countless candles over the years in prayer of petition. Everything that had to do with that little corner of refuge in my life, except the frame, was gone.

Ironically, after reflecting for a while on this brief return to my original church, I feel my faith is stronger.

Although it is not a popular belief in our scientific world, I personally believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Over the years, I have experienced the healing transformation that Christ has given me through the reception of the sacrament and by sitting quietly in receptive prayer in his holy presence.

Of course, I don’t believe that God can be limited, and I don’t believe that we can only experience God’s loving presence within the four walls of a church. God is outside, inside, and everywhere. There is no place where God is not present, even though God’s presence may be hidden from our perception due to other factors.

For me, however, the reason the interior of St. Stephen’s felt so lifeless and empty was because the unique presence of Christ in the tabernacle was no longer there.

Christ is the one who holds together every ecclesial community and each one of us as individuals.

Without the tabernacle, its sacred contents and all the sacred art, the former St. Stephen’s Church is an empty shell of what it used to be: the home of worship for a deeply Catholic Slovak culture.

Yes, it seems to me that God has indeed abandoned the building.

THE SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column by Jerrilyn Zavada Novak that discusses common experiences of the human spirit. Contact her at [email protected].