On the same day that Michael Fleming’s op-ed on the fascinating history of St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine appeared in the News Journal, Bishop Malooly of the Diocese of Wilmington was meeting with the parishioners of Christ Our King Church in Wilmington to tell them they were closing the church in September of this year.
While not completely unexpected, the parishioners were clearly shaken by the news. These remaining loyal “Kingers” have stuck by the church through years of declining local Catholic population – many driving deep into the inner city from the outer reaches of the county to attend weekend masses. A few years ago the Bishop put the parish into the hands of Father Joseph Brennan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, the religious order that runs the highly successful Salesianum School. The likeable Father Brennan quickly developed a strong following but he was clearly swimming upstream against a heavy current.
While the Bishop must have known he would be met by a disappointed flock, I’m not sure he was ready for the barrage of questions and emotions that came his way last Tuesday night – the Kingers did not want to go down without a fight and they were frustrated that the diocese was not doing more or allowing more time in order to help keep the institution alive. One member of the congregation after another got up and referred to how their parents were married there, their children baptized there or beloved family members buried from there. You could sense that an important part of the fabric of their lives was being taken away and it was clearly painful.
Several of the questions related to what was going to happen to the magnificent stone church, rectory and convent that fill one of the most beautiful and peaceful blocks in the Old Ninth Ward. To the congregation it was just hard to imagine this oasis in a troubled city surrounded by a cyclone fence with signs warning trespassers to keep out.
To this writer and 70-year parishioner, the loss of Christ Our King signifies more than a loss for the Catholic Church and the parishioners who love it. To me it has an element of betrayal to the legacy of our ancestors and the way of life and community that the “greatest generation” sacrificed so much for.
These blue collar Wilmingtonians first built a school to educate their children while cramming into the basement for many years until they could collect enough on Sundays to build their church. Once constructed in the years after WWII, the campus filled two city blocks. The elementary school would educate future mayors, a Speaker of the House, great business leaders like philanthropist Jim Kearns and even a future head of the US Navy SEALs.
Can Christ Our King be Saved?
I guess I was surprised to realize as I listened to the Bishop that Christ Our King receives no direct financial support from the diocese, in fact the struggling parish has been a leader providing support for programs of the diocese – half of the more than $100,000 contributed by members of the parish in a fundraising drive last year was returned to the diocese. And the Bishop started his remarks by saying that in fact Christ Our King is typically one of the first parishes to reach the diocesan fundraising goals each year.
So as I left the church Tuesday night I began to wonder what the reaction might have been had the Bishop instead of bringing his CFO to read us the numbers, had brought a different message – a message challenging the parish to survive, such as:
I’m here tonight to tell you that Christ Our King is in deep trouble – we need to raise an immediate $500,000 to address several infrastructure issues and we need to find a way to raise an additional $100,000 a year – now let’s see if we can come up with a way together to do this!
I am sure that many readers of this publication have been a part of a fundraising drive for amounts greater than $500,000 – and actually the task would be only $250,000 if the convent with a roof in need of repair could be donated to another good cause with deeper pockets than COK’s (there was almost a deal recently to use it as a shelter for homeless women veterans – this and other organizations may have access to state or federal funds).
COK alumni probably number in the thousands and many are still in the area and unaware that an important part of their heritage is about to go under. Perhaps there could be an approach to area foundations, wealthy individuals and other sources of funds, even a “Save COK” dinner could be organized at the Chase Center (maybe we can bring that SEAL home to rally the Kingers). But as the diocese pointed out there would still be the serious challenge of projected deficits (in recent years these annual deficits of approximately $100,000 have been covered by the proceeds of the sale of the school and those funds run out this year). That would indicate that at current giving levels the number of parishioners would also need to rise by approximately 100 to sustain the church.
Who knows, maybe there is a brighter day in the future for the Catholic Church and the City of Wilmington and we just need to build a bridge to that time. But what we can count on for sure is that once Christ Our King closes, it will be gone forever – an edifice that should have stood for centuries in tribute to the families who built it.