The name Brody Hale has a certain ring to it, reminiscent of a character in a Herman Melville novel.
But Hale is no fictional character. He lives in the Berkshire Mountains in South Lee, Massachusetts. The thirty-something visually impaired lawyer (he’s also a self-taught Catholic canon law expert) is known throughout the world as one of the foremost experts on how to save Catholic churches that have been closed by their respective Dioceses.
He comes from a mixed religious family background, an Irish-Italian Catholic mother and (as he puts it) “an Old Yankee Congregational Puritan Protestant father.” Hale says it was in college that he got into the Church on a theological level in terms of ‘Why am I Catholic?’
“I lived through the parish closures,” he told me by phone. “The closures were called ‘reconfigurations’ in Boston. I experienced the loss of my own childhood parish church in the Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts. After this, I started to wonder: ‘What can be done here? These closures don’t make a whole lot of sense.’”
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He says it was at this point that he asked himself if there was anything that could be done to alleviate the need to liquidate these churches, even if they can no longer be used for regular services and Mass.
“This led to a considerable amount of research on my part, and to my understanding that since the late 1960s, various groups of individuals had undertaken the retention of Catholic churches as sacred (not deconsecrated) spaces that could be available for Mass from time to time. In the United States, most of the groups dedicated to saving churches were originally located in the Midwest.”
Hale contacted over 80 of these groups in the United States, Canada and one in Australia and was surprised to discover that nobody knew of anyone else doing this work. “They were all independent sort of homegrown projects,” he says.
In 2012, he was motivated to work with one group that was seeking to retain the beautiful cathedral-sized St. Anne Shrine in Fall River, Massachusetts, which had been closed by the bishop in 2018.
According to Fall River Community Media, the Diocese of Fall River closed St. Anne’s in 2018, citing millions of dollars in needed repairs and weekly collections that had not kept pace with the costs needed to maintain the building. The upstairs church had been closed since 2015, when a piece of plaster fell off the wall during services. With Hale’s assistance, the downstairs chapel was opened for special services and Masses. The chapel had always been a destination spot for pilgrims and people seeking miracles for various illnesses. Much like the shrine in Lourdes, France, one can see stacks of (discarded) crutches and leg braces there.
“After St. Anne’s, I wanted to sort of ‘mass produce’ this work and reach out to Catholics who wished to do this and to help their groups get organized and save a church,” Hale said.
So he co-founded the St. Stephen the Protomartyr Project, a nonprofit consulting agency that he runs from his home.
SPP advises the average Catholic parishioner on how they can begin the hard work to save their parish church after a bishop has given it the ax.
“This has been a continuing evolution for me, but I found there are many cases where you have a group of Catholics who do not have the capacity or the ability — it’s not that they are intellectually deficient in any way — that would allow them to do what we did in Saint Anne’s.”
I started to wonder: ‘What can be done here? These closures don’t make a whole lot of sense.’
His work has been championed in Catholic conservative circles like Church Militant. “I will take press anywhere it comes,” he says. “It’s funny, the Catholic right wants to give me a lot more press than anybody else. That’s where it’s coming from. I’ve done stuff with them.”
Hale says it really irks him when he hears people say a church is just a building.
“A church as defined by canon law is a sacred edifice,” he says. “Churches as sacred buildings have fundamentally more protections under canon law than parishes.”
Thanks to two generous donors, Hale has been able to expand his work and to drive home to people through lectures and video podcasts that Catholic churches don’t need to be liquidated, that they can be brought back to life.
Even deconsecrated Catholic churches are sacred spaces and can be reconstructed to resemble what they looked like when they were built rather than sold to real estate developers who would convert them into art gallery condo multiplexes, or what Hale calls “unpleasant places.”
“We’re losing Catholic churches by the score throughout the country,” Hale says. “They just announced that two more churches would be closed in the Diocese of Scranton. I would hope that Catholics who care about sacred art and sacred architecture and the preservation of Catholic churches will begin to support what we are doing in greater numbers.”
Yet even with willing Catholics who might be willing to support Hale’s work, there’s the issue of resistant Diocesan bishops when it comes to the laity buying closed churches.
“The Boston Archdiocese has fought anything we have tried to do, tooth and nail,” Hale said.
He mentions Holy Trinity in Boston’s South End which could not be saved, and then praises the Fall River, Massachusetts Archbishop for his support and cooperation for allowing The Project to move forward with saving St. Anne’s church there.
Why are some bishops so eager to sell churches that have been closed?
Hale points to the maximization of real estate potential and the view that if a church is purchased by the laity it will undercut profits. Other bishops may worry about a loss of control. It’s like this,” Hale adds: “‘If I allow these people (the laity) to take this church and keep it Catholic, how does that impact my control as a bishop?’
“This is not what churches are supposed to be used for according to canon law. Churches are not poker chips a bishop can use to cash out when he’s in a bind.”
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Hale tells me about what happened to him when he contacted the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, some years ago and asked for a list of endangered Catholic churches there.
After he put in his request, he says he got a call back from a “raspy-voiced” lady who told him, ‘Well, I have a message for you from the Chancery, we’re not giving you anything.’”
Resistance among bishops basically defines the state of affairs in Pittsburgh, Hale said, when I brought up the state of Pennsylvania.
About the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he had a lot to say but unfortunately all of it has to be off the record — for now. “There’s a lot going on in Philadelphia,” he said. “We will see how it all shakes out. I’m choosing my words very carefully about Philadelphia … but that story will have to wait.”
The case of St. Kiernan’s
The church of St. Kiernan’s in Schuylkill County (Irish Valley) in Minersville, Pennsylvania was closed by the Diocese of Allentown in 2008.
The official reason given for the closure was a lack of priests. The church is important for many reasons, the foremost being that St. John Neumann authorized the construction of the church and visited the site three times, according to the Friends of St. Kieran’s, an organization devoted to the preservation, care and upkeep of the church.
After the church’s 2008 closure, Hale says that St. Kiernan’s was sold to “a fellow from out of town who then passed away in New York.”
The owner died before he could do anything with the church, so it continued to deteriorate.
We are partial to beautiful sacred architecture.
“We purchased the church from Schuylkill County as well as the outbuildings for $63,000, probably two times what it is worth,” Hale said. “And we are now in the process of planning how to put the church back together.”
The damages to the church since 2008 have been significant.
“The interior has been ripped by vandals. The vandalism includes things that were whitewashed over in terms of paintings. Anything that wasn’t bolted down that wasn’t of a religious nature was pretty well ripped out. The organ had remained intact until about a month ago until some teenagers pushed the consul off the balcony and smashed it. They have been arrested and I am pushing for their prosecution.”
The first step in the restoration of St. Kiernan’s will include securing the church to prevent any more “teenage” intrusions.
“Then we will work to reconstruct the interior as it appeared during its heyday, with a high altar and other accouterments that would be necessary to restore that church to what it would have appeared when Neumann was Bishop of Philadelphia.”
Even after the restoration of St. Kiernan’s, Hale says there’s no guarantee that Masses will be permitted to be said there, because the church has been deconsecrated.
When asked if the restoration would include modernizing the church with a butcher block table altar — much like the wreck-o-vation that occurred in the famous Jesuit church of the Gesu in Rome where the high altar was dismantled and a butcher block table altar put in its place — Hale answered with adamance:, “My intention is to reinstall a high altar.”
“It will be a sanctuary of the type existing when Neumann dedicated the Church. We are partial to beautiful sacred architecture.”
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year. Join him at Barnes and Noble on Rittenhouse Square for a book-signing on July 9.