Spirit Matters: Faithful carry indelible memories of Slovak church

Jerrilyn Zavada

My ancestors are weeping.

I sense it in the air; I feel it in my bones.

Today, parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Streator received a letter in the mail stating effective after the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Oct. 1, all Masses and other liturgical events will move from St. Stephen church to St. Anthony church.

St. Stephen will permanently close because of unrepairable foundation issues, according to the letter signed by Msgr. Philip Halfacre, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel parish.

The ancestors of many Streator folks built this church from the ground up.

St. Stephen parish was founded in 1883.

The current church was built in 1906, brick by brick by Slovak immigrants whose central focus in life was faith in God. In 1912, a new school was built next door, followed by a rectory in 1926, and a convent in 1958.

From those humble beginnings all the way through 2010, when the four Streator Catholic parishes consolidated into St. Michael the Archangel, that Slovak heritage thrived through the pride and dedication of generations of descendants.

I know this because from the time I was born, and baptized as an infant, my childhood religious education was bred within this community.

No one who has attended St. Stephen School, or been a member of St. Stephen parish during those years can deny how deeply those memories are ingrained in their being.

Not only was it a hub for religious observance, it was a social hub, as well. Those who immigrated from Slovakia found community and belonging through their parish.

From First Communion, Confirmation, eighth grade graduation, May Crowning, 40 Hours Devotion, Christmas Concerts that included traditional Slovak carols, countless baptisms, marriages and funerals, to chicken dinners, fish fries, the annual Fall Festival featuring the Ding-a-Ling sisters for entertainment, school athletic events in the parish hall … belonging to St. Stephen was a way of life.

It is in our blood and bones.

In the last 25 years, we have watched as our school was closed, and the school, rectory and parish hall were demolished.

So much of our lives in shambles.

Now I, and so many others not only in Streator, but across the country and around the world who once called St. Stephen’s home, have to let go of this beautiful sanctuary, whose walls, ceilings, fixtures, altar, choir loft … are imbued with the prayers, yearnings and petitions of every one of their souls, and the souls of the faithful departed.

My faith has grown and evolved since those simple days of my childhood.

I have participated in the liturgy in many church buildings and retreat centers.

I realize God cannot be confined to a building; indeed, my prayer life has expanded far beyond the walls of the church, as well as some of the restrictive dictates of my childhood formation.

And yet … for better or for worse, this is my heritage. This is the heritage that was passed on to me by my humble, hardworking, and stubbornly devout ancestors.

And by the grace of God, I am fortunate and forever grateful that my husband and I were married in this church on March 25 of this year – the Feast of the Annunciation – which celebrates when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary of Nazareth to propose she bear God in her womb.

Our marriage vows are sacred and holy, and I am blessed to have been able to make them in the same space where I was baptized, received my First Communion and confirmed … where my parents were married … where my dad was returned to The One from Whom he came.

Closing the church doors cannot change or minimize any of that, ever.

And, my faith in and experience of the Holy One will continue to grow and evolve beyond these walls, until I take my dying breath and beyond.

But damn … this hurts.

SPIRIT MATTERS is a weekly column that examines experiences common to the human spirit. Contact Jerrilyn Zavada Novak at jzblue33@yahoo.com to share how you engage your spirit in your life and community.