Friday, 15 February 2008

Crumbling Stone Chapels in Wales, Abandoned Wooden Churches in America, both a National Disgrace?

[Pictured above: The oldest standing religious building in Youngstown, Ohio, formerly the Welsh Congregational Church on Elm Street, now an Afro-American Congregation COGIC building. This prize example of American 'Queen Ann' period architecture was built by immigrants from Wales who worked in the Mahoning Valley mines and iron foundries.]

Crumbling Chapels in Wales, Abandoned Churches in America, both a National Disgrace?

Anyone lucky enough to rent a car on vacation in the states or to take a Sunday drive into the rural hinterlands of the U.S. can attest that in many little towns where white picket fences used to define the landscapes, boarded up churches have become pigeon nests and bat niches, nothing more.

The plight of U.S. architecture has been discussed, and you can get a historical perspective in this NY Times article 'PRESERVING AMERICA'S PAST' from 1987.


A similar state of affairs can be found in Wales, where some chapels are preserved, but where many other chapel stand as rotting or neglected relics of the 300 Year long period of Welsh history sometimes referred to as the 'Welsh Chapel Gothic' period.

The Welsh National Gird for Learning gives an online Introduction to the Welsh Chapel phenomenon and history:

Welsh Chapels at the Welsh National Gird for Learning

The U.S. has had a two hundred year old discussion about subsidizing churches wrapped up in the 'Separation of Church & State' discourses, and it might be said that in order to err on the side of 'not supporting religion', historic religious building preservation has suffered in America.

This seemed to be reversed by the Bush administration under popular pressure from both conservative, liberals and progressive who were 'horrified' to find their Granny's church being bulldozed, etc.

'In a reversal of a longstanding policy, the Bush administration said yesterday that it would allow federal grants to be used to renovate churches and religious sites that are designated historic landmarks.'

Please see:

In Shift, U.S. to Offer Grants to Historic Churches

It's not that every American community doesn't have at least a few activists who want to preserve the old churches, many of which have been empty and without congregations for as many as 30 years. It's just that there are too many churches for the activists to save.

[Pictured above: Orthodox church on Steel Street near Briar Hill, in Youngstown, Ohio -- this church used to among key centers of thriving Ethnic Greek/Russian congregations whose population long ago fled to the distant suburbs and whose nearby homes have been demolished, bull-dozed for 'urban renewal' or were torched by crack-smoking gangs in the 1970-80s.]

But why aren't more folks up in arms about this in America? Well, it might have something to do with the transition of Americans in mass numbers from rural to urban/suburban communities, and from religious to secular lifestyles -- beginning in the 1920s and culminating in social and cultural changes in the tumultuous 1960s.

Once they leave behind their parents' ethnic enclaves and churches to take up life in the hopeless banality of U.S. suburban sameness, they forget about the 'old neighborhoods'.

As for the fate of the old churches, it's 'Out of sight, out of mind'.

This trajectory of social and cultural trends can be described as a negotiation with constructs of 'modernity' in American life.

On one hand, folks who are still 'true believers' might call it the moral decline of the land.

On the other hand, folks who have left behind the faith of their grandparents for rationalism, New Age eclecticism or secular humanism,etc. might see the exodus from religious buildings as progress.

[Pictured above: The former Youngstown, Ohio South Side Salvation Army Swedish Corps at 24 Warren Avenue, right off Market Street, not far from South High School. Until the 1960s Swedish language religious services and cultural events were held here. In the 1970s it was stripped of its hand-carved pine altars and pews, built by Sargeant Major Larson, and turned into a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence. The church formerly located at the heart of a high density ethnic urban enclave is now surrounded by demolished fields of urban rubble.]

But the contemporary 'true believer' buys an SUV and abandons the decaying historic town centres for nameless 'big box' mega-church concrete monsters, forgetting Granny's chapel, while the secular American often doesn't know there's a rotting historic church hidden away in their neighborhood, not at least, until some entrepreneural gay couple buys the ruin at rock bottom price and then converts it to a chic loft townhouse for Urban Up-and-Coming newlyweds.

In Wales Cadw has its hands full, trying to shore up the enormous number of castles and ruins that predate the Welsh Chapel period, and so its understandable why chapels are not fully valued, given that the Welsh are surrounded by internationally-recognized Roman, Norman, Tudor, Vistorian and Edwardian gems that drain away limited funds for restoration and preservation.

Read about Welsh castles and Cadw here.

There seems to be a similar historic trajectory in Wales (as compared to America) where the Welsh went into a chapel-building frenzy at the height of the Great Revival in the years around 1903-1905, and then saw congregations turn their backs on church attendance and church building upkeep in droves in the years immediately following the Great Welsh Revivals.

Today it's not uncommon to see a Welsh chapel converted in a betting shop, a video store, a used carpet outlet, or simply boarded up and rotting away silently.

I don't mean to say that there aren't plenty of well-preserved churches to visit in American and in Wales, there are.

But I refer to the neglected monuments of our ancestors' faith and identity as a metaphor for how we as 'modern secular cultures' think about ourselves . . .

I want to ask my sophisticated secular 'self' if "within the construction of my modern ration identity there still exists a well-kept and honoured 'sanctuary' for the transcendent, the mystical, the romantic and the beautiful?"

"Or has the stress of being busy supplanted the 'temples' of my inner quiet? But I digress . . ."

Or more interestingly, "If I am embarrassed by some clunky and out-dated aspect of my real history and heritage, what does that say about ME?"

In the BIG self-determined country of America churches had cultural functions as they reinforced individual and SMALL group identities, often related to sect, creed, ethnicity, and continuity of cultural transferance to the young.

For example, on one side, some of my ancestors built Welsh Congregational chapels and held Welsh-speaking Sunday Schools from 1860 until 1960!

My father's Swiss Anabaptist ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1730 and records show that the Bausser/Bowser Family descendants continued to build German-speaking churches right up through the American Civil War in 1860-1865. After that, usage of 'Pennsylvania Dutch' in the pulpit or at the supper table seemed to decline.

In Wales, the building of chapels might be argued as an act of nationalism, distinct from the established or disestablished Churches of England or Rome.

Indeed, the first act of Parliament where Wales was acknowledged as a separate entity since the Acts of Union was the Sunday Alcohol laws in the late 1880's, which were driven by a chapel-informed and motivated Nonconformist Protestant Christian Temperance movement, overwhelmingly popular in Wales.

So if Americans are neglecting their rotting inter-city and small town churches where their mostly immigrant grandparents once worshipped, are they reflecting an American displacement from cultural and ethnic heritage?

And if the Welsh are avoiding an informed processing of their 300 or so year long Welsh Chapel history (symbolized by 'selectively' letting the embarrassingly 'religious' among their national monuments crumble) are they doing this because they are now secular and can't be bothered, or is that they just don't see the connection between themselves and their ancestors' religious habits, or both?

I heard a Welsh tourism official describe a brilliant campaign that was designed to celebrate and promote the 2000 year heritage of Wales as a historically 'Christian' nation. This specifically Christian heritage in Wales(not contemporary British Muslim, not British Hindu, not even the Church of Scientology) is a historical fact, even though most modern Welshmen can't remember the last time (if ever) their shadows fell across a chapel threshold.

Apparently, according to the anecdotal telling of the former tourism official, the campaign was quashed for being 'insensitive' to the purposes of contemporary religious 'tolerance and pluralism' in a modern Wales of Hindus, Muslims, Shiism, and other many new and diverse beliefs or non-beliefs.

I've heard folks from within the enclaves of power in Wales tell me how they don't want to be associated with the 'traditional' 'Gymandfa Ganu' or 'Eistoddfod' image of Wales, because they intend to enforce an 'either/or' policy that allows only a historic OR a modern image of Wales to go out to the world, but never both, and if they have their way, ONLY a sanitized modern Welsh image will be exported abroad.

This reminds me of when I was a child delegate at an international summer camp (CISV) in 1970, I wore the silly Cowboy & Indian get-up that my international campmates expected of me as a representative of Yankee culture, and I gave away embarrassingly iconic Western pistols and Totem poles, even though I grew up, not in a frontier wagontrain prairie dog ghost-towns of Hollywood fame, but in an industrial urban city that had erased its Native American history (in all but place names) 150 years earlier.

My Indian mates were handing out sterotypical Taj Mahal and Ivory Elephants, as would be expected.

One of my Dutch playmates was giving away replicas of the airport terminal at Schipol, of which the Dutch were proud and wanted to portray as the icon of a 'new' Holland.

My Indian friend Sanjay captured the sentiment of the rest of us when he refused to trade his miniature Taj Mahal for a miniature Schipol terminal when he asked,

'But where are the Windmills?'

My point is, when I return to my father's hometown in Pennsylvania or Ohio, I expect my long-lost cousins to show me the quaint little Welsh or German congregation church with its steeple, right next to the stereotypical cover-bridge and Appalachian autumn leaves. I will be horrified if they take me to visit the local and new 'Office Depot' or 'Walmarts'!

That's also true when my Welsh relatives come over to visit me in Wales -- the first thing they want to see are castles, pubs, cathedrals, and CHAPELS!!!

But the question for Wales remains, will my great nieces when they are grown come over to their ancestral Wales and find any chapels left to visit?

I have friends from London who relocated to Wales in retirement becuae they liked the rural quaintness of their traditional chapel-centric new hometown in West Wales.

I am amazed how this German/Anglo gay couple transplanted from Canary Wharf seem to care more and know more about the local chapels and their upkeep and preservation (including the neglected local Anglican chapel and almost abandoned cemetary)than anyone I met when visiting the local pub.

Indeed, several people in the local pub couldn't even tell me how to find the old chapel that used to be the centre of life and national pride in that cartref.

In another article I'll contrast this neglect by Americans and Welshmen of their historic buildings to the popular movement in Italy where everyone now seems to need a restored apartment in the 'storico centro' of their ancestral town, and they're willing to pay millions of Euros to have it . . .

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Gyda bob hwyl i bawb, Mark

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