In October 1943, Winston Churchill eloquently expressed the importance of architecture in a speech calling for the reconstruction of the House of Commons, which was bombed in 1941: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” When it comes to religious architecture, this is especially true. Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches all seek to bring us closer to God, emphasizing different aspects of the divine and our relationship to it—whether through thick walls and solid pillars, the abundance of light sifting through stained-glass windows, symmetry and precision, or grandeur.
Centuries have passed and our ancestors have disappeared, but the memory of their faith, of their way of life built around God, can still be found in hundreds of cathedrals, churches, and cloisters. Their preservation shows due respect for our historical heritage and, more than that, gives the faithful an opportunity for communion with the saints, to occupy the spaces they once did.
Unfortunately, like the Mission San Francisco de la Espada in Texas and so many other Spanish missions in America, the immense historical religious heritage in the Old Continent is in danger of being neglected. The closure of many religious buildings has propelled them toward an uncertain fate, as they are left at the mercy of patrons, private entities, or local, national, or European public organizations. The Catholic Church oversees the conservation of many religious buildings, often with the help of administrations if they have been declared “of cultural interest”; in Spain, there are about three thousand such properties. However, conserving these buildings is as costly as it is unprofitable, even though the fruits of faith can never be measured economically.
It goes without saying that the life of towns and cities no longer revolves around the church; that the number of the faithful has been dramatically reduced; and that many progressive governments are intentionally cutting back on cooperation with Christians. As a result, many dilapidated historical religious buildings in Europe are on the verge of ruin. Many of them require urgent action if they are to be saved.
I hate to see the traces of history erased without further ado. Every time I see a small, abandoned village chapel, with its roof caved in, ransacked by thugs, I think of the faithful celebrating their first Mass there, and of the desperate prayers that were said within those walls.
An effort to conserve Europe’s historical heritage is underway. In Spain, the Hispania Nostra association, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, has created a “Red List” of endangered historical heritage sites, many of them religious. On their website, they offer a complete map of monasteries, convents, or chapels that are in a state of abandonment or deterioration. These sites are first examined by a scientific committee, which determines whether they meet the necessary criteria to be included on the list. Once on the list, all the necessary information is provided so that private entities, patrons, or public administrations can work to save the structures from extinction.
Currently, 401 religious heritage buildings are at risk, while 89 have passed from the “Red List” to the “Green List”—buildings or artistic treasures that have been saved, either by private intervention or public administrations. Those that could not be saved—or that have been radically altered—are added to the “Black List.” This list includes the Monastery of Santa María de las Tiendas, in Palencia, from the thirteenth century, which was also a hospital for pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago. After years of sitting in a state of ruin under private ownership, it was controversially demolished in 2006.
Every year, the organization Europa Nostra, launched in 2013, similarly compiles a list of seven endangered historical heritage sites in Europe, chosen from a pool of nominations. Thanks to E.U. support, the selected sites are given immediate attention by public administrations.
Among the historical sites nominated over the past few years are: the wooden churches of Maramures in Romania, amazing Orthodox temples built between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries; the spectacular complex of the David Gareja Monastery, also of Orthodox rite, in Georgia, with hundreds of cells, chapels, and refectories carved into the rock, on the desert slopes of Mount Gareja; Saint-Denis Church in Saint-Omer, France, a place that historically links France, England, and the United States. The church was an initiative of local elites and an English Jesuit college, and many Catholic families sent their children there to study, even though Queen Elizabeth I had forbidden it.
It is difficult to believe that many of the contemporary churches that have been built in Europe since the twentieth century, exemplifying some of the crudeness of modern architecture, will survive the centuries with the same significance as these other historical jewels. There will always be those who point out, not without reason, that God does not need immense and beautiful cathedrals, but the truth is that it helps us with our faith. Those who have had the opportunity to visit any of Europe’s architectural wonders, from the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain to the Duomo of Florence in Italy, know that God seems to be waiting for us among the stones, beneath the arches, between the columns, which have witnessed the faith of men and women for centuries.
Progressives will not lift a finger to save these threatened treasures. We will. Conservatives are all about conservation, sometimes literally.
Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist and the author of nine books.
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