I am second generation Italian. (I would have been first generation except for the fact that my grandparents had their last two babies after they came to this country. All of my mother's siblings except her youngest sister, were born in Italy and my mom couldn't speak English until she was about 7 years old.) My family is from a small village in the region of Puglia, on the east coast of Italy, right on the Adriatic Sea.
In their small village is a magnificent cathedral which was built in the early 1600s. (this is the actual cathedral built by my ancestors:)
I'll get back to this in a little while, but let me preface that with a little something.
When I lived in southern Virginia, I belonged to a church run by the most left wing priest you could ever have the joy of meeting. Father John was more than my priest. He was my friend. For those of you who have known me for a while through our online book club, you might remember my writing about Father John; he was the priest with the ponytail and the pierced ear.
Anyway, I had gone to a convention where Father John was the speaker. I had also just read an article about a phenomenal cathedral that was about to be erected in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx. Father John has just given a beautiful talk on ways to help others on their faith journey. He was taking questions and I, never known to keep my hand down, stood up.
"I want to know," said I, "how the Church can even begin to talk to anyone about this when they are planning on building a multi million dollar structure in one of the neediest neighborhoods in our country."
I glanced around the room and could feel my face turning red because there were suddenly about 200 pairs of eyes fixed on me.
Now as I said, Father John was my friend. He was used to my mouth but I think I caught him off guard by saying this in front of his audience.
"Beej..." he said. And that was all he said.
"No I mean it. I think they could forego at least one chandelier and take that money and buy food for these folks. That would do more to increase the trust in the Church than any light fixture ever could."
I think he wanted to strangle me right then and there. He slowly began to recite to me the reasons the church was doing this and how much pride this cathedral would instill in these poor folks. I didn't buy it.
"It's hard for anyone to be proud of a building in their neighborhood when their stomachs are empty!" I was getting angry now.
Father John asked me to sit down and told me he would talk to me afterwards about this. I did so, and trust me, he and I got into a rip roaring argument afterwards.
Okay, now let me broach the subject of architecture. (You are going to have to trust me that all these subjects will tie together by the time I'm done.) In the recent past, I have seen many photos of beautiful buildings in Mexico. One of our dear blogger friends has been kind enough to share his photos of the gorgeous buildings in the place where he is currently abiding. I am not picking on Mexico. As I said, there is an equally gorgeous cathedral in the village of my ancestors. I became utterly jealous and longed to be in the midst of such beauty. I mean, I ached for this. I have been busy raising kids almost my entire life and have not had the opportunity to experience any sort of world travel and I hungered to experience that. There are, of course, some impressive buildings in my own country, but not to the extent that there is in Mexico, or Italy, or England, or basically anywhere other than in either the United States and Canada. We are just too 'young' as countries to have that to the extent of these other countries. But then I had this HUGE epiphany; it was more than that.
If you have read 'The Pillars of the Earth,' set in England but I suppose its story could apply to many other locations, you know that the construction of these magnificent buildings was brought about by the blood, sweat, tears ,and even life itself, of the poorest of people, those who struggled to feed their families, find a warm place for their families to sleep at night. People sacrificed and suffered in working on these structures because they had no choice! The more awe inspiring the church, the more money their parishes were given, the more chance of having food on the table. In other words, hunger was taken advantage of. People sought refuge from starvation. And if you wanted to fill your bellies, you had better be willing to sweat your tail off to erect these buildings.
Now, back to my family land; As I said, there is a breathtaking cathedral in this little village. My family lived there for more generations than we can trace back. I know, I know! my ancestors helped build it. There is no doubt in my mind that they suffered, they struggled, they cried and prayed to get this building done because they had no choice! They really weren't given any choice to do otherwise.
And THAT is the reason my grandfather came to America, leaving behind a young wife and a half dozen children. He came here to better himself as a way to better his family. After a few years, he sent for my grandmother and aunts and uncles. Now let me tell you how successful his dream became for his family; My cousin is a Judge. My nephew is a doctor with also a PhD in immunology and microbiology (yessiree, that's an Md.Phd., folks.). We have several lawyers in our family as well as a dentist. Another nephew is an artist with carvings in some pretty prestigious museums as well as the author of a coffee table art book for which he had a NYC signing, he attired in a full tuxedo. My niece is one of CNN's news anchors.I could go on and on. But this is why my grandparent left their homeland. And it happened. Their dream came to fruition. It would not have occurred had they stayed in the shadow of that building.
Now, if one looks back to the majority of churches in the early history of our land, they are stark. They are minimal. They contain what was needed by the congregation. I doubt anyone died building them. They were enough to serve their purpose and that was that.
The remnants of an early American Church:
These earliest of immigrants suffered to come here in order to have the freedom of choice. My own family, rather recent immigrants, is a prime example of that. So are all the poor Mexicans coming into this country by the droves in order to feed their families. Their gorgeous cathedrals are plentiful, but they have not done a whole lot to ease the extreme poverty in that country.
In short, my epiphany was this; there is a reason why neither the USA nor Canada has the extreme amount of breathtaking architecture that other countries do; it was a choice our ancestors made. Their priorities dictated something more. They lived through something most of us in our fair country have not. And you know what? I'm glad. I am so glad. Because if they hadn't done that, we could all still be struggling by the roadside, looking for shelter in the shadow of a towering cathedral.