Spirit Matters: God has left the building

Jerrilyn Zavada Novak

I recently went into St. Stephen Church in Streator for the first time since it was permanently shuttered in October as a result of structural concerns.

St. Stephen’s has long been known as the oldest Slovak Catholic Church in the U.S., and it was built, brick by brick, by people of faith.

My formative years and those of generations of families took place in the parish church and school.

As a student at St. Stephen School, religion was the focal point of our education. My siblings and I attended daily Mass throughout our time there. It was inside the church that we participated in countless aspects of church life, including Christmas concerts, 40 hours devotion, Christmas and Easter Masses, Advent, Lent, baptisms, first holy communions, confirmations, first confessions and much, much more.

I received all of my sacraments at St. Stephen, most recently the sacrament of matrimony March 25, 2023, before anyone knew the church would close in a few short months. I thank divine providence for that favor, and for being able to get plenty of photos of the beauty inside.

Most importantly, I spent many hours alone in quiet prayer as a youngish adult before the blessed sacrament, where I came to know Christ as a real presence in my life.

My own Christian beliefs have evolved through the years, and I no longer agree with everything I was taught as a child, or with the institution and the flawed humans behind it. But the parish was at one time a vibrant community of Slovak immigrants and descendants who were stubbornly devoted to their faith and to their cultural customs.

And so, the closing of this sacred space is no small loss in my life and the lives of many others.

For better and for worse, it has been a place where our souls developed.

The church has been reassigned to profane status by the Diocese of Peoria, meaning it no longer is considered a sacred building and no longer can be considered desecrated. The school, parish hall and rectory have long since been demolished, and I am guessing the church will be next.

So before entering the church, with a lifetime of experiences etched in my spirit, I tried to emotionally prepare myself.

But I wasn’t prepared for the profound and palpable sense of lifelessness into which I walked.

Every piece of sacred art inside had been removed and put in storage, including the stations of the cross, the statues on the main altar and two side altars, and of course, the tabernacle, which at one time held the life-giving consecrated eucharistic host that Catholics believe is the real presence of Christ.

If one word could describe what I felt and experienced in my brief time inside, it is haunting.

I took a few photos, but I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of what was once an altar in honor of the blessed virgin, Mary, and where I lit countless candles through the years in prayerful petition. Everything about that little corner of refuge in my life, other than the framework, was gone.

Ironically, after reflecting on this brief return to my original church for a while, I feel my faith is stronger.

Although it is not a popular belief to hold in our scientific world, I personally do believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Through the years, I have experienced the healing transformation Christ has given me through the reception of the sacrament, and in sitting quietly in receptive prayer in his sacred presence.

Of course, I don’t believe God can be limited, and I don’t believe we can only experience God’s loving presence inside the four walls of a church. God is outside, inside and everywhere in between. There is no place that God is not present, although God’s presence might be hidden to our perception due to other factors.

And yet to me, the reason the inside of St. Stephen felt so lifeless and empty was because the unique presence of Christ in the tabernacle was no longer there.

Christ is the one who holds any church community, any of us as individuals, together.

With the tabernacle and its sacred contents, as well as all the sacred art gone, the former St. Stephen Church is an empty shell of what it used to be: the home of worship for a deeply devout Catholic Slovak culture.

Yes, it seems to me anyway that God has indeed left the building.

SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column by Jerrilyn Zavada Novak that examines experiences common to the human spirit. Contact her at jzblue33@yahoo.com.

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