Sunday, June 12, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, Wallace

(Part one in an ongoing series.)

"Dad, do you think we could go to church one of these Sundays? I kinda miss doing that with you."

That was my daughter speaking to me about a week ago. When we first moved to Idaho, I was still trying to find my place within the Catholic church I was raised in. The whole family went with me to Mass on Sundays for a while, and since then my kiddo has gone with me irregularly to various Catholic and Orthodox churches in North Idaho and the Spokane area.  

I've pretty much moved on from any attachment I once had to traditional forms of Christianity, other than to see them as a metaphorical expression of how to connect with the divine. You may recall that my previous entry had to do with how I'm OK with the idea that truth is a pathless land. That hasn't changed. But on the rare occasion I do get an itch to go to Mass, I usually attend St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, about 50 miles from our front door out in Post Falls. That church is part of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which still offers the pre-Vatican II-style Latin Mass. The modern vernacular Mass I was raised in isn't really my thing. That's a long story for another time, and one that I've touched on previously in this blog. But since I don't want to take out a loan to fill up my gas tank for a 100-mile round trip to Post Falls, I thought it would be a fun thing for the kid and me to visit some churches not far from home, right here in the Silver Valley, where we live. 

The Silver Valley, so named because of its rich silver deposits that once made it one of the leading mining centers in the world, is a narrow stretch of land that cuts across the northern part of Idaho. There are roughly 10 small towns here, depending on where you draw the valley's boundaries, and among those towns there are probably around a couple of dozen churches. 

The first church I attended after we moved here, and one of only a handful that I've visited, is St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Wallace. So that's where I decided we'd start our tour.

As chance would have it, St. Al's was today celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ordination of its assigned priest, Fr. Jerome Montez. Fr. Jerome takes care of all three Catholic churches in the Valley, as well as attending to two Catholic faith communities outside the valley, in St. Maries and Harrison to the south of us. He's a busy guy, to say the least. But he also seems of good cheer, as during the celebratory luncheon following Mass he was walking around and greeting folks by name and chatting with them as if he'd long been familiar with their lives. That's the way it goes in a small town. 

St. Al's, dating to 1894, is a Wallace landmark. Sitting on a small lot near the east end of town in an otherwise residential area, save for a tiny playground across the street, the old brick structure has been well preserved, marked by its arched stained-glass windows and a bell tower that hovers above all the houses around it.  

I've seen old historical photos of St. Al's, and from the looks of it, the church hasn't changed much over the years. The only major alteration I can see inside from days long past is that the old communion rail is gone. But that's typical of almost every post-Vatican II church. Otherwise, a visitor from the church's early years could walk in and find himself in quite familiar surroundings.

St. Al's in 1935, from the Barnard-Stockbridge Photograph Collection.
St. Al's in 2022.
My daughter and I sat on the Mary side of the church, as has long been my custom. For non-Catholics, that just means that there's usually a Mary statue to the left as you're looking at the altar, and a Joseph statue to the right. My connection to Mary, and through her the Sacred Feminine, was the only thing that kept me in the Catholic fold for many a year. It still feels somewhat comforting to be in her presence while the Mass is going on, like having a compassionate mother looking protectively over you.

From our vantage point there was also an image of the Divine Mercy and an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help prominently placed. It's interesting to me that the Catholic church has taken such a shine to what originated as an Orthodox Marian icon, but it's nice to see, inasmuch as it suggests a spiritual camaraderie of sorts between the Eastern and Western churches. The Eastern Catholic churches excel at uniting the ways of East and West, which is something I've always admired about them, and given my past explorations into Orthodoxy, the presence of icons always lends a warm feeling of familiarity.

The first reading today happened to be one of my old favorites, from Proverbs, in which Sophia, the Wisdom of God, proclaims that she was God's companion from the time of the creation of the earth, "rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind." Aside from certain mystics over the years, the church doesn't recognize Sophia as a separate being, an immanent aspect of the divine, but rather as a poetic personification of God's wisdom alone. The church and I have different points of view on that -- suffice it to say I take the mystics' side -- but it was nice to hear a familiar reading that's always resonated with me.

A few more shots of this lovely old church, taken immediately after Mass:

My daughter wanted to go up to the organ/choir loft you can see in that last picture, but the stairs were chained off. The only music during Mass came from a pianist on the main floor, so I have to assume the loft is no longer used.

She had lots of questions for me as the Mass unfolded. She hasn't been to a modern Mass since back before the lockdowns, after which we stopped attending church regularly. I was helping her figure out what to say, and I explained the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, how each piece of communion bread isn't a discrete body part of Jesus, like his appendix or his big toe, but the entire body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. ("Isn't that cannibalism?" came the question that many Catholics have had to contend with. Then, "Can vegans take communion?" The respective short answers are no and yes. But it's theologically complicated.) She also wondered why the Holy Spirit is a bird, and how it had time to fly down from heaven and consecrate the bread and wine at every church in the world. I tell you, kids think of things that grown-up minds would never contemplate. And we've raised our daughter to be skeptical and question what she's told, so she's only doing exactly what I would expect a kid raised that way to do.

I'm glad that I've taken such a lifelong interest in religion and spirituality so that I can answer most of her questions. I've more or less become her religious-studies teacher as a result. When I was a kid her age, no one was willing to answer the similar questions I had. I was told to be quiet, have faith, and listen to the priest -- which did a curious mind like mine no good, leaving me with so many questions and doubts that I eventually walked away from the faith. 

Still, going to a Catholic Mass is always kind of like going home again. It's familiar and in some ways comforting. I'm glad we started out our Silver Valley church adventure at St. Al's. But I have to admit that my daughter and I preferred the luncheon afterward to the Mass itself. 

Arriving in the social hall after Mass. Time for food!
She was eyeballing Fr. Jerome's anniversary cake the whole time we were eating lunch and kept wondering where Father was so he could cut the cake and take the first slice. 

Once he stepped up, she was one of the first in line. 

Finally satiated with lunch and dessert, we found our way home, happy that we decided to embark on this fun, and potentially enlightening, new journey together.

Come on back for our next stop, which will probably be a week from today.     

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