August 23, 2009

This week's work and thoughts

Em hotep (in peace!)

As I promised Tamiwi, my "new year's buddy," I will write something in this blog at least once a here we go. I apologize that it's not nearly as eloquent as the Kemet This Week podcast that Kai Antybast put up about our ancestors, but I am also thinking about the past and the future as is pretty apt during Wag Festival time.

The year of Do-ing is underway. There's been a great deal of talk among our congregation and planning for various things. We'll be hosting a gathering here in Joliet again next weekend for Wag Festival. School is about to resume in the US and so a majority of us are either readying ourselves or our children for the year to come. I'm readying myself, too; on Wep Ronpet morning, fittingly for the year of Djehuty, I finally received the news after 18 months of working out the details that my doctoral candidacy is on and the preliminary research stage of my Ph.D. work is about to begin.

It's definitely a busy August. In addition to the work around the doctorate I'm readying for an annual exam of the liver tumor I was diagnosed with in 2006. It's benign, so the tests are to confirm that it's still benign and to see if it's changed in size at all. The hope is that the hysterectomy I had right after it was discovered will cause it to go away eventually. After next week I suppose we'll know if we're getting anywhere. Most people would probably be terrified to talk about this kind of stuff. I can't say I'm not anxious about the testing, but since I've walked this particular walk before I know how it works and know it's not time for panic. (I am a cancer survivor from my 20s; the reason I even have the tumor is probably connected to treatments I had then).

While this is going on there's also suddenly a lot of bustling next door, as the diocese readies buildings in the church compound for sale. This is probably the biggest thing on my mind right now, actually, for a couple of reasons. One is that when we bought Tawy House Joliet back in 2003 it had been mentioned that those buildings might go for sale over the next decade, and so the possibility of expansion was a major selling-point for us.

The other is more personal. I'm furious about what they're doing to the parish. There's been a church on this block since the founding of the city. The actual church that stood next to us burned down in the 1970s, and the parish was unable to reconstruct it; instead they raised enough money to have the gymnasium portion of the parish hall/school that sat behind the church transformed into their new sanctuary. It's beautiful. From the inside you would not really be aware it was once a playing floor; even the gym windows were replaced with stained glass that depicts symbols and images of Joliet's history.

Father James passed to the beautiful West two years ago, and we knew something was wrong when there was no mention of a replacement for him. At first the assumption was that since there was a very new bishop in town perhaps they needed time to figure it out, and then when summer passed into autumn and still our neighbors were holding no masses, the truth became clear: the little Slovak church was being abandoned. Christmas came and went, and no mass...and then the week after Christmas the sister who was Father James' caretaker came to me in tears. "They've shut the church down, and they're sending someone to close it and they're going to sell the buildings."

Maybe I have some old demons to work out around Catholic closing policies. I was at Mundelein College in 1991 when the Church decided to shut it down and give its properties to its neighbor Loyola University while they shipped the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who had founded the place as one of the first women's colleges in the midst of the Great Depression back to Iowa, to live out their days quietly in a convent rather than to teach young women.

As the editor of the college paper I was deeply involved in covering that entire process of Mundelein's demise, and even after desperate attempts to save the school including raising the amount of money they said we needed to stay open via a personal appeal to Oprah Winfrey (her producer was a Mundelein alumna and she's always supported women's causes), and audiences with the Cardinal and even the Holy Father in Rome...we lost the school anyway.

Not very long after they started talking about the "merger" we found out this had been the plan all along regardless of what faculty, staff, students or alumnae wanted. The architects of the plan were rewarded by getting their names put on the buildings that weren't torn down or sold off, and five years later all mention of the women's college disappeared except for a token gesture of allowing one of the buildings to house a "women's studies" archive. The most vocal of Mundelein's faculty were forced out (illegally given tenure laws mind you), and spent years in legal suits trying to recoup their losses. What happened at Mundelein was perhaps my first really negative experience with organized religion, and reminded me that even the most zealous and caring servants of the Divine might sometimes make decisions based entirely on finances.

So my heart broke when I talked to Sister and some of the parishioners. I knew exactly what they were going through, as I'd been through it myself. They were feeling the grief that no matter how hard they had tried to save their home and history, some person or persons who had nothing at all to do with them had made a business decision and it was all over. I asked one of the Latino parisioners why they couldn't relocate the very large congregation a few blocks west of here who meet in an old big-box storefront, so that they could have a "real" and beautiful church to worship in instead of an empty shell of a building and so that the historic church next door would not be sold and torn down or made into something else. "They need money," was all I got in response.

The sale is evidently on. Sister is being moved out on Thursday, to a convent 30 miles or so east of here. Her house will go on sale sometime later in the week. The three elderly Mexican sisters currently renting the rectory where Father James used to live are trying to convince the bishop to let them move into the smaller house, but we don't know if they will be successful.

Some local restaurateur is interested in the church/parish hall to gut it and turn it into a banquet facility and restaurant; another, who according to parishioners has political connections, is interested in making it into a nursing home facility. Nobody seems interested in keeping it a church, and one of the oldest churches in Joliet. Nobody seems to want to let the Latino Catholic community, which could really use a bigger and more suitable place to worship their God, use this perfectly good and beautiful place, because the diocese needs money to help pay off their bills and legal issues and the place they are now wouldn't sell as well. Nobody seems to care that the parishioners who went to this church since the founding of the city, the descendants of the Slovenian steel workers whose families are all buried in the church yard a few miles down Route 6, will lose the last connection they have to this location and their traditional house of worship. Nobody seems to care that the neighborhood is going to lose a great opportunity to do something for its people and replace it with outsiders who just want to develop it to make money. Nobody seems to care about how wrong this is.

Nobody but me, anyway. I talked to them, and told them if I can figure out a way to make this happen I will open a community center in the parish school building, something sorely lacking in this neighborhood that we could really use to keep our kids happy and safe and not falling into crime and gangs like they are a few blocks over across the tracks.

I told them that I don't think there's any reason why the Latinos can't rent the church from us to hold masses in, so they don't have to be in that stupid storefront. There's nothing we use in our ceremonies that couldn't be put away or moved out of the way during times when they would be present, and I cannot think of any reason why my gods would object to us sharing our holy places with other devout people who just need a place to pray. After all, we did it with a number of temples in classical times for centuries. Contrary to rumor, it was not Christianity that killed our gods' worship in Kemet; it was Roman pagan emperors like Septimius Severus who limited participation and the use of Kemetic language and ritual first. Christians and worshippers of Netjer honored the gods alongside each other in our temples for a very long time. At Philae our priesthood even gave the Christians a part of the hypostyle hall to put a church in for their use, while Aset "Mother of God" was being worshipped a couple of doorways further in.

I've put in calls to the diocese, and the parishioners are encouraging me to just go over to their offices and talk to them directly about what can or cannot be done. It's an empty building now, has been for a year and a half, and there doesn't seem to be any good reason to allow a part of Joliet history to disappear without comment.

It's one of those days when I wish I was wealthy in money and not just in spirit. I know we can do good things for the community while we honor our gods. We'd have to have more people move here to help, and it would take a depth of commitment that we've never asked for before, but we made a miracle happen when we bought the first building and the faith was about half the size it is now.

I've got so much on my mind around this. To quote an old film, "if you build it they will come." But I don't know what to do, really. I don't know if this is something my people want, or it's just a dream I have to help the place I live and the people who don't deserve what is happening to them while at the same time helping my own dream for our own faith to grow. We don't have the money to make any outright purchase, and there aren't enough people here in the area yet to help do the things we'd want to do with the property. But would they be interested? Would they come? Would it work? Does the church need to be saved, or is this just my nostalgic history-loving soul bemoaning the fate of progress? I don't know.

Terecita said "I will pray so very hard..." after I told her about what we would do with the place if we could figure out how to acquire it. I'm praying hard. Something good needs to happen next door, whether that's caused by us or somebody else, or whether the property goes to new hands and they manage to figure out a way to do something new with it that doesn't disrespect the ancestors who went before. It doesn't matter that they're Catholic and we aren't. God is God, on a certain level. May God and God's people be served no matter what happens.


  1. It is horrid what they are doing, those poor sisters, the neighborhood without a place to worship. I may have my issues with Christianity, but none of it has to do with those that truely believe, only with the hypocrites with the false smiles that claim leadership. If there is anything I can do, just say the word.

  2. What I wouldn't give for those twice-weekly lotto tickets to work out. My family is ethnically Czech, and the Czech and Slovak population here in Texas that stilll speaks the language and honors the old traditions is dwindling. daily -- literally. They also face the possibility of a loss of their church, though ethnographers like my brother do a lot to keep money and attention coming to the community.

    I want a way to help them, but I don't know how to do it. If we could make the buildings profitable then perhaps we could make it happen. Expanding the seminary is the first thing that comes to mind. I'm on track to be a community and adult education professional, and I would love to direct some kind of community/continuing education related to the Faith someday, but that's a number of years off.

    As far as tending the immediate needs of these people...I just don't know. I will pray for advice and guidance, but short of the Lotto working out, I can't do it by myself.

    Then again, Djehuty says we can't do it by ourselves this year. That we all need each other. Maybe in this regard, too...?

  3. Adding a secondary thought here, one that came to mind a bit ago: would it be possible to use the space to set up a charter school? Those usually get government funds.

  4. As I said a few weeks ago, if you ever hear of library jobs around Joliet I'll take some very hard looks at them at minimum.

    It's a damned shame these things happen, where the dollar becomes the guide above all others. I know it's not modern, but having seen all the past examples then see it repeated feels so frustrating.