Last Saturday, an extraordinary coalition of Toledo leaders gathered together in front of St. Anthony Catholic Church, at Nebraska and Junction Avenues, to plea that it be spared the wrecking ball.
The man who wants to tear it down?
The Roman Catholic bishop of Toledo.
MARCY KAPTUR: Let’s save St. Anthony’s church
The mayor and two former mayors, the county treasurer, several members of city council, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, local religious leaders, citizens, and sometime political rivals and enemies, united.
When there is that sort of political and cultural unity, attention must be paid.
St. Anthony’s is scheduled to come down soon — this month, if not this week.
The city has issued a stop work order, but that is mostly to buy just a little time — time to convince Bishop Daniel Thomas, of the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, that there is a public good at stake here, and that a better way is available to him.
The public good has three aspects:
First, St. Anthony’s is an architectural gem — worse for the wear after 15 years of abandonment, to be sure. But, it is a landmark, not only for the neighborhood, but for the city. It is what you see driving up Nebraska Avenue from downtown. Since 1897, its spire has called and inspired.
And Toledo has done an abysmal job of protecting its architectural legacy. We have lost too much, down through the decades. This structure was built, brick by brick, by the hands of immigrants in Toledo, our ancestors.
Second, tearing down this gargantuan structure will very likely create environmental and health problems in the short run — dust and asbestos, and asthma, for the people to live on the blocks and streets around the church. Yes, people live there, and most do not own air conditioners. The demolition will also have an adverse impact on the only fresh grocer in the neighborhood. And, it will leave a hole in the ground where once a house of faith stood.
Third, there is no doubt that, in time, something good, like a mixed-use community center, could fill the insides of the old church. Imagine a sports center with a basketball court and state-of-the art boxing gym, a local health clinic, and community meeting rooms — all in the building. A revived and re-purposed St. Anthony’s could bring stability and pride to the neighborhood. That is available to us, rather than a mound of rubble.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has volunteered to find federal money for such a project. Indeed, she is willing to pay out of her own pocket to take down the chain-link fence and take away the wrecking ball. The congresswoman is fired up about this. She is angry in a way that she is seldom angry — because she loves Toledo and its history, because this does not have to happen, and because she is deeply Catholic and she sees her church about to commit a grave sin against the community.
One of the fascinating things about the Saturday press conference/rally was the Catholic theme that ran through the remarks. Speaker after speaker spoke not only of his or her connection to this particular church, but of Catholic values they learned as children, now being betrayed. These values include service to the poor; compassion for the underdog and respect for tradition. Many spoke of Pope Francis who tells his priests and bishops: Listen to the people. Get involved in their lives. You cannot serve them or even pray well for them if you do not know them. And you cannot know them if you do not listen to them.
The people are pleading with Bishop Thomas: Help this neighborhood. Save this church that was so long its center and its soul.
There is a final irony here, and it is multi-faceted: Not only would it cost Bishop Thomas nothing to change his mind, but he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by changing his mind, including saving money.
He could turn the keys over to the Land Bank, and for only a portion of what it would cost to tear the building down help finance securing and mothballing St. Anthony’s.
That offer is on the table
The diocese would be not only free of a liability, but the bishop would win a great moral and public relations victory. Ill will and hurt would be transformed to good will and charity — the sort of transformation the bishop is ostensibly interested in and to which he is vocationally committed.
There is no reason for the bishop to stick to his guns and not save this church, save one. And that is pride. That would be tragic, for the bishop and for this community he is bound to serve. For pride is the great and original sin. A part of Toledo history, a part that could be an important part of its future, should not die for one man’s pride.
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