Monday, 20 June 2016

The Church of the Good Thief

Once again, I am reflecting on the theme of impermanence – how that which appears to be immutable, unchangeable, and fixed suddenly vanishes before our eyes…or does it?

The starting point of this meditation is the Church of the Good Thief, a Roman Catholic church located in historic Portsmouth Village, now part of the City of Kingston. I spent an hour exploring it on Saturday, when it was part of Doors Open Kingston. I’d been planning my trip to the church for several weeks, ever since I learned that it would be one of this year’s featured buildings. The church had clearly summonsed me. And I obeyed, twice within forty-eight hours.

I have driven by the Church of the Good Thief hundreds of times over the decades. It’s very close to the brutal, now mercifully closed, Kingston Penitentiary. In the 1950s, my family drove by it whenever we wanted to avoid traffic when going downtown Kingston. In the 1960s and 1970s, I rushed by it regularly when attending Queen’s University. In a city overflowing with worthy limestone architecture, it was a knock-out. Because I’d seen it so many times, however, it had become a blur in the peripheral vision of my memory. So – why did I suddenly feel the need to actually enter the building?

Some background. The Church of the Good Thief was built in 1892, using convict labour to quarry its limestone and construct its walls. The architect, Joseph Connolly, designed many other churches in the Archdiocese of Kingston. The Romanesque Revival style is as beautiful today as it was 124 years ago. The church name honours Saint Dismas, the patron saint of prisoners. The legend is that Saint Dismas was one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. For many decades, the parish flourished. Sadly, by November, 2012, the congregation had dwindled to the point where it could no longer be sustained, and the church was closed. Although well maintained, it now sits idle.

And it had summonsed me.

When I entered the cool, virtually deserted sanctuary, I was overcome with an ineffable sadness and sense of loss. The altar was gone. The organ was gone. With one exception, the statues were gone. The empty pews remained, silent witnesses. In a side chapel, a statue had been covered in a garbage bag. The sacristy had a wooden bas-relief carving of Jesus’ face and a few votive candles. With the simple addition of a priest and a few parishioners, surely the whole thing could burst back to life and carry on as before.

But no. It was dead.

I’ve had the same sense when gazing at the body of a loved one who had just died. With the simple addition of a heart beat and a few breaths of air, surely this body could burst back to life and carry on as before.

But no. It was dead.

And as has happened so many times in my life when faced with ultimate truths, I simply cried. What once seemed permanent proved to be transitory. The reality is that this good parish is gone, joining myriad other places of worship in Canada that have also closed.

However…however… this building – this glorious, noble building – lives on. Its walls are solid enough to survive another century, likely more. The Archdiocese of Kingston is selling adjacent properties with an eye to funding a Catholic Heritage Centre in the church. I wish them well. The Church of the Good Thief deserves another opportunity to serve its community.

Repurposed, as they say. As, ultimately, we will all be repurposed.

Enjoy the images. The exterior shots were taken at dawn this morning.

Until next time.


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