I am a child of Vatican II. It was announced just before I became a gleam in my parents’ eyes. I was born a couple of years before the Cardinals began to meet, and my formative years were filled with changes from the old way to the new way of worship. I have memories (and recordings) of Father Gengler going through Christmas Eve Mass, 1968, and explaining all the parts of that Mass that, up until then, had been said in Latin, and probably with the Priest’s back turned to the congregation. It was a time of mighty change. As an eight year old kid, I didn’t know any differently, but I do remember the consternation that was caused. Some of the old folks were beside themselves trying to endure those changes.
For the most part I have been happy living with the changes made by Vatican II. Worship in the vernacular is a good thing. A more people-directed religious pulse is a positive. But one of the changes that came out of V II was an attitude of austerity. Gone were communion rails, and excessive ornamentation. High altars were altered to bring the focus to the front of the Sanctuary. Statuary was removed, in favor of a more streamlined, less distracting atmosphere. My church in Southwest Minnesota suffered this fate. The church was built between 1915 and 1922 in the style of the great old German churches, filled with statues, paintings, and adornment. But remodeling in the 1970s took away some of that decor, though, thankfully, the immaculate ceiling artwork was saved.
It wasn’t just the Church that was going through this. Urban renewal was the buzzword during the late sixties and early to mid seventies. If it had age, it needed to be either improved or removed. Romanesque revival was replaced with Brutalist, stripping away curves and lines and replacing with chunks and clumps. We were the 1970s, with jet planes, fast cars, science, and engineering. We needed a main street that matched our world view.
All of this said, please know that I’m not against development. Buildings have lifespans. Things of our historic past scatter and fade. That is the nature of things made by man. But, when development happens, you never, ever hear the developer remind people that, once that building is gone, it’s gone. Photographs will help fill the memories. Models, both real and virtual, will help to better see that building, or park, or memorial, in a clearer light through the shroud of the past, but it will never be the same as standing there, and putting your hand on the wall that has been touched by hundreds or thousands of others over the course of decades or centuries. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
I had started this posting with a simple purpose; to express my frustration with decisions and the statements made by the current Administration regarding national memorials and the apparent lack of any historical concept by the President, but I realize as I am writing, that there is much more to this than one narrow-sighted President.
You see, within my adopted community of Grand Forks, North Dakota, there is discussion over a small piece of land. It is a tiny pocket park that was created after Grand Forks’ flood of 1997, a park made to fill the empty space left where a downtown building was destroyed. It was built with the intent of going away, basically lay down some turf, plant a tree or two, put up a sculpture, and create a placeholder park until the day when someone with a grand design came to develop the property. In the twenty years since the flood, with all the changes to city and region, this little parcel has become a touchstone to many. It is a gateway of sorts, a figurative gateway to a recollection of our traumatic past and a literal gateway to “the Alley of Love”, a quirky little one block alley that has become a wonderfully distinctive point of light in our city of fifty thousand. I have to say that I am pretty firmly on the fence about this park. Part of me wants it to stay exactly as it is, in much the same way that, every now and then, I wish that I could go back, hold my children, and keep them exactly as they were when they were young. But a part of me also sees the need for time to move on. To create new. To take and change what was into something different for the future. And, all though I am conflicted, in the end, I suspect that the leave the park stand part of me will take the day.
My mind goes to my professional life, and the big changes that we will be going through over the next few months as my department moves out of the oldest building on the University of North Dakota campus, into not quite so old offices, classrooms, and storage spaces. Time must march on. I know that the Chandler hall that I love will soon be gone, as is the nature of old buildings, but still, still I go back to my memories of spending a quarter century of my life in this building. And then, looking back at those before me, to the days when the UND Alumni Center used part of the building as a store room for addresses and information. And further back, to when the building served as offices and classrooms for teachers of Engineering, educating the men who would learn their trade, then go out and change the world. And further back, to when those same spaces were workshops where young men learned the crafts of woodworking and machining.
I love history, always have. The stories of people of the past fascinates me. It reassures me to know that my troubles are not new, and that those troubles have been lived thousands, millions of times in the past. There is nothing new under the Sun. Everything old is new again.
The history loving me hurts when I look at what our President has authorized, with the dangers of taking away natural pieces of our history for the sake of pure political expedience. To have a President who has no concept of history, no idea of the paths already walked in the name of peace and freedom. A President with no understanding that his political idol created trails of cruel terror for men, women, and children, good people who were forced from their indigenous homes and walked across the country, because of the color of their skin and the fear from the “civil” population to those who had been a part of the land for millennia and stood up against the annihilation of their historic past. A President who has no personal sense of responsibility beyond pure self-entitlement.
Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once the ground has been pierced for one more oil well, cracked open for one more coal mine, or bulldozed flat for one more factory it can’t be put back to the way that it was. And, this is the point that has taken me over 1,200 words to say. Because, this development might not be bad if jobs are created, and if those managers and owners of drillers, miners, and development are also stewards for the land that they are scarring. That the suffering of the land, the dirtying of the skies, and the poisoning of the rivers leads to an improvement for our overall quality of life and a bettering of our natural world in the future. But I don’t think that this is possible right now. Because this is the time of blatant greed, of naked attempts at taking land by use of personal power. Of getting rid of any rule or regulation that hurts the bottom line, even if it destroys land, water, or air for others. Of paying many people much less so that a few can make a lot more. This is the time of tearing down the old because it’s old, without regard for the longevity of what will be put in its place. History has a record of what happens to growth under these conditions, and it usually doesn’t end well.
Fifty years after Vatican II, the Priest currently at my hometown church is looking for those statues that were taken away two generations ago, and the parishioners are trying to find the money to repair and restore a beautiful, grand, church of the Minnesota prairie. I often wonder if those kinds of caretakers will exist in forty years, to clean up and put back together the messes that our greed and avarice is creating today.
Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
(If you are interested, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Heron Lake, Minnesota is in need of donations to repair and restore the church. Please google and reach out to them. If you email me, I can also put you in touch with good people who will appreciate and honor your gift.)