Saturday, March 20, 2010

Church Banners

Yesterday, March 19, was the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Joseph the carpenter is the patron saint of our parish here in St. Joseph. Steve was really excited about the feast, and got up and went to early Mass. He was disappointed that it wasn't a bigger deal in the parish. Afterward he saw the liturgist and said that he would be happy to make a banner of St. Joseph, in the woodblock style of our parish logo, which he also designed, for use on the feast. The liturgist, David, said: "Will it have words on it?" He doesn't like words on visual displays.

When Steve told me about this, it reminded me of my sister, and of our transition from the Catholic Church to an Assembly of God church when I was 12 and she was 10. When we switched churches, I think it was the visual change that was the most overwhelming for us. Instead of priests, we had a pastor in a business suit. Instead of pews, we had chairs that stacked for removal from the school classroom where we met once the service was over. The classroom was really two, with an accordion room divider opened up to make room for us on Sunday mornings. No more stained glass, incense, wood, candles, altar-- not even a crucifix. The tools of our pastor's trade were an overhead projector for the song texts and writing notes with a Sharpie during the sermon and a podium from which he preached.

There was no question for us that God was there. God was present in our prayer and in our singing, in the prophecy and tongues that were now a regular part of the service, in the love of the people for one another. But it was sort of like the Whos of Whoville after the grinch came. My sister and I, at least, missed the tree.

I was surprised when my sister went to our pastor and asked if it would be OK for her to make some felt banners. I knew this was "a Catholic thing." In our 1970s Catholic parish church we'd pitched in to make many banners: wheat and grapes, giant suns and sunbeams, Holy Spirit doves plunging into flames. And I was even more glad that our pastor said yes.

My sister made banners for the major liturgical occasions: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and for everyday. They were strung over the podium, making it look much more like a lectern, or hung from the track where the accordion door ran. I loved seeing them, and also recognized it was a profound gesture of love toward us. Pastor Stroud and that congregation cared a lot for my sister and me, the only teenagers in our small congregation. He wanted us to feel at home.

The Assemblies of God, I would learn over time, are particularly spare when it comes to religious imagery. They don't have overtly religious ornamentation in their churches. I don't think ours was unusual, even though we didn't have a permanent building. 

Felt banners were very much a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s Catholic Church. As I've learned more about Vatican II, I realize what a dramatic shift occurred very quickly in terms of church architecture and design. For the parishioners of St. Irenaeus in Park Forest who had attended in the 1950s, our church must have looked spare indeed. And into that space the folky Catholics of the Vatican II era brought large felt banners, a whole new age of liturgical design and art. And we, who only knew that, took it with us in our hearts. 

images: top left is Steve's logo for St. Joseph Church, St. Joseph, Minn. Would make a nice banner, wouldn't it?  At right is a recent example of a First Communion banner, which seems to be a common project for 2nd graders. If you'd like to see some really professional felt banners by liturgical artist James Mellick, click here.

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