The Power and the Pews

A Spokane native exposes systematic failures in the Catholic church in her new book.

Julian Guthrie
Julian Guthrie

For nearly ten years, the parishioners of St. Brigid, a 19th-century Catholic church in the heart of San Francisco, struggled to save their church — from the Church itself.

The story of their impassioned, unyielding campaign to overturn the archbishop’s decision and spare their house of worship from closure — at a time when the diocese was trying to sell off assets to pay for sex-abuse claims — was covered in a Pulitzernominated series for the San Francisco Chronicle by Julian Guthrie.

Guthrie, a former Spokanite, has recounted that true tale of determination and desperation in her new, Oprah-recommended book called The Grace of Everyday Saints, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Already gathering praise from critics as well as its subjects, the book shows how the parishioners’ faith became strongest when it was challenged by the very institution in which they believed.

The Inlander spoke to Guthrie about her work over six years on the St. Brigid’s story and why Catholics everywhere should know about it.

INLANDER: Did you have any reservations about speaking so authoritatively for the parishioners of St. Brigid’s?

GUTHRIE: I spent more than six years working on this story, first as a series that ran in the Chronicle in 2007 and then expanding the series into this book. This is a reconstructive narrative, so scenes where I was not actually present were reconstructed through exhaustive interviews with the subjects. I reviewed thousands of pages of notes and spent countless hours with my subjects. I also was on hand reporting the story as it unfolded in late 2004.

Was objectivity something you had to work hard to maintain?

As a journalist, I have to maintain objectivity. As an author, I feel like I can speak more freely. I saw these incredible people and learned of their story of faith. All they wanted was to preserve an old historic church and get back into a place they believed held their faith. They were dismissed and treated like children. One of the great ironies of the book is that these people found their faith strengthened once they were locked outside of their church.

I heard both sides — that of the laity, and that of church leaders. I think the church treated its own horribly. They saw them as the enemy. It’s a parable of the larger problems of the Catholic Church today.

Isn’t the situation faced by St. Brigid something wholly unique to Catholicism?

All types of churches are closed for all types of reasons. The difference with Catholicism is that there is really no democratic appeals process that gives the powerless a chance against the powerful. Parishioners can appeal to the Vatican, which is what the people of St. Brigid did, but they rarely have a closure order overturned. Catholicism remains top-down and hierarchical, and this is a part of what distances or challenges many Catholics today.

How might this book be relevant to readers here in Spokane?

The Grace of Everyday Saints offers in intimate detail the very real fallout from clergy abuse. Spokane Catholics will relate, as they have had to deal with revelations of clergy sexual abuse. The diocese, facing some $50 million in payouts involving an estimated 180 claims, had to file for bankruptcy. Parishioners worked to raise money to save churches. All of this has — by degree — undermined the church’s credibility, and made Catholics search their souls to figure out faith on their own terms.

Despite the somewhat positive outcome, doesn’t the story highlight just how depressingly disenfranchised from all decision-making processes ordinary people truly are?

These parishioners didn’t get what they set out for, yet they discovered amazing truths along the way. Having said that, it certainly does illustrate the disconnect between those in power and those in the pews. But I think in the end, it’s more about these everyday people who don’t regret for a second that they’ve spent all of this time fighting for something they love.

Julian Guthrie reads from The Grace of Everyday Saints • Sat, Sept. 17, at 2 pm • Free • Auntie’s • 402 W. Main Ave. • • 838-0206

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.