In What You Found Old, Find Something New

All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.  —J.R.R. Tolkien

I n the Christian Park neighborhood of Indianapolis, there sits an empty old building that formerly served as the St. Bernadette Church and School. At nearly 70 years old, this structure has seen better days. Approaching her main entrance from the south, the strains of water damage from a leaking roof over the porch are evident in fallen plaster on the concrete. Looking up and across her main facade, one is struck by ugly, yellowish beige wood panels used to fill in large spaces once occupied by 40 foot banks of windows reflecting her mid-century design heritage. To the right, a tired landscaping bed holds remnants of untended plants and the now empty concrete pads where statues of St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes formerly resided.

Moving around the building, the rough parking lot is gritty and cracked. Time-stained brick surrounds the entire structure encapsulating it with a worn-out sense of 1952 and rusty air conditioning units accent her front windows with the flair of a decrepit industrial facility. Entering the building from the back, one is immediately greeted with the glossy beige blocks of her walls and the old doors leading into the former sanctuary where parishioners enjoyed Mass and other sacraments for over 60 years. Like the rest of the building, the empty, cavernous space is a time capsule for the 50’s as it seems little has changed since its construction. Throughout the quiet, empty halls and classrooms, old tile, old paint, old ceilings and old memories rest upon her tired aspect.

Looking at this old building, I see something very different. Clean, simple lines mark her silhouette. Beautiful old trees line the property on which she rests. Strong brick and concrete walls support her roof and frame her windows. Inside, lovely terrazzo floors lie waiting to be polished. In the now-silent lobby, an elegant metal handrail hints at her mid-century legacy and her spacious cafeteria echos with the voices of schoolchildren, long-gone, chattering away during the prized moments of past lunchtimes. Throughout the structure, her 1950’s ethos peeks out from behind dirt, stains, and paint. Peering deeper, one begins to see the history of this place blending with the possibilities of the future. For me, I see new life, new experiences, new relationships, and new memories being created inside and outside her revitalized walls.

One of the serious follies of our time and culture is our propensity to cast things away after their useful life. Unfortunately, useful is a darkly relative term whose definition varies widely by individual, organization, and era. We can be quick to give up on something when we can no longer see its luster, our interests change, or it becomes inconvenient. Old buildings often fall into this category because they are inherently inefficient, expensive to restore and maintain, or changing regulatory codes doom them to destruction or worse: the slow fading of dilapidation.

Lest you feel that I write as a Luddite resisting change and progress, have no fear, there is only one way forward and it is always marked by change. However, we can evolve while embracing the beauty, elegance, and values of our past; building or organization, individual or culture, faith or science. Looking at the old place they called St. Bernadette’s in Indianapolis, Indiana, I am reminded that there is great possibility in building progress on a solid foundation. Sometimes, we need to look beyond the stains of time, broaden our perspective, and redefine our definition of value – there we may find a new way forward; unknown, unseen, and likely unexpected.



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