There are many sayings that speak of time as a good teacher. One saying is attributed to a Greek statesman, Pericles, who lived some 400 years before the birth of Christ. Pericles described time as “the wisest counsellor of all.” The wisdom of this maxim is captured well in my love of photography. I enjoy taking photographs of old abandoned buildings. A couple of decades ago, I considered these objects to be merely garbage. Now, much older and a little wiser, and having an interest in history, I look upon neglected buildings from the past as prairie art, exhibits of another era. Abandoned churches, and farmyards, with their houses, granaries and barns, are important windows onto the past. They are like covers of history books concealing valuable stories within.
Several months ago I visited an abandoned church alongside a rural gravel road. The church looked, exteriorly, to be in good condition. Like many older churches it had a bell tower on the front that gave it a sense of dignity and purpose. The church sanctuary was an elegant worship space. The front altar area was painted in green, a colour I had never seen covering church walls. The shade of green gave the space much beauty.
The sanctuary appeared to be frozen in time, seemingly in the same condition as it was when it had been last used. At the front was a large crucifix hanging above an altar that held large wooden candleholders. A statue of a saint stood on one side and the sacred heart of Jesus was positioned on another. The holy figures looked straight ahead to the pews, stations of the cross on the side walls and more statuary at the back.
An organ and small cabinet with church hymnals sat in a front corner of the sanctuary. There were hymnals lying on the church pews. The hymnals appeared as though they had been left after a parish celebration, and were waiting: waiting to be used again or waiting to be put away. The hymnals had been waiting a long time. They were covered in dust. The sanctuary had been left untouched for what seemed to have been many years. It was now a window onto the past, looking exactly as it had following the last parish celebration. The sacred space still conveyed a sense of reverence as it remained empty, in silence. Now, all it could do was wait. It once waited for the parishioners to return. Now it waited for a decision to be made on its future.
Near the church is a small cemetery. It is well maintained and in good condition. I wondered if the graves had names of people who had helped build the church and raise funds to furnish the building.
I am the pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Muenster, which has stood for 105 years. The parish recently celebrated the completion of renovations that lasted for seven years. The restoration both refurbished the church for the next generation and honoured its pioneer families by commemorating them in new stained-glass windows.
Two churches stand as witnesses to how attitudes change in the passing of time. One generation sacrificed to build a charming church that was later abandoned by the next generation. Another church was restored and now enshrines the memories of previous generations in stained-glass windows.
We are in Advent, a liturgical season of setting aside “time” to reflect on the birth of Christ, and on the second coming of Christ. God revealed himself fully in time through the Incarnation in which the Son of God left timelessness and “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) came into our time. Mystery unfolds in time and, if we let it, mystery brings us to come to terms with who we are and who we are in relationship to others, and to God in the Incarnation, the Prince of Peace. Time changes the way we see things. It is a wise counsellor.
Paproski is a Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey and pastor of St. Peter’s Parish, Muenster, Sask.