File photo by Clayton Patterson
A shaken-up Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado was consoled by Barry Allen as she called the Department of Environmental Protection to try to stop the destruction of St. Brigid Church’s painted-glass windows on July 28, 2006.
BY ELIZABETH RUF-MALDANADO | About a decade ago, a friend who was leaving his apartment here in Loisaida for an apartment in Brooklyn rationalized: “In five years you won’t want to live here, either.” Though I knew he was wrong, I understood where he was coming from — the pub crawl of young nonresidents with their attitudes of entitlement, the rising rents, the demolition of many gardens, the closing of beloved community spaces and mom-and-pop businesses, and the encroaching chain stores threatened to erode many of the pleasures of living in our countercultural and diverse neighborhood.
But this past Jan. 27, the joyous throngs squeezing into St. Brigid’s Church at the grand reopening reasserted a collective trait of this community that keeps me here: We never give up.
As I waited in the crowd to set foot once again in the church building that had become like an old friend, I had time to reflect on the many successes we’ve had in our changing neighborhood, even as life here has become sometimes culturally alienating and difficult to afford. St. Brigid being a patron saint of Ireland and guardian of students, poets, midwives and even dairy maids, I can think of many ways I can personally connect with her patronage and relate it to the almost miraculous effectiveness of our community’s homespun rituals of caring vigilance. I share those reflections here.
Last month’s joy contrasts sharply with the anguish of July 28, 2006, when I stepped out of my building a little after 7 a.m. for the early-bird lap swim at the Pitt St. pool and was greeted by the sight of a wrecking ball dangling from a crane parked alongside the northern face of St. Brigid’s. At that early hour, the block was still pretty much deserted, except for the demolition workers who ambled about the scaffolding surrounding St. Brigid’s waiting for the order to do their worst.
The plans for the swim vanished and I took action as if a loved one were crying out for help. The bond I feel with St. Brigid has been growing since I came to live in Loisaida in 1979. I got to know her church in passing during frequent runs around Tompkins Park or en route to the East River promenade. Since 1992 I’ve been living across the street from the church.
Though not a Catholic, I had stopped in at holiday Mass, and had sung and woven crosses of palm at interdenominational Palm Sunday outdoor services attended by congregants of St. Brigid’s, Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish and others, in Tompkins Square Park’s central oval. One year, drawn by the music of the brass band that accompanied the annual procession of San Martin de Porres — a 16th-century Peruvian-born doctor and patron of interracial harmony — I joined the ranks of the Peruvian women of St. Brigid’s Parish bearing on their shoulders the massive, velvet-covered wooden beams that held the altar and life-sized sculpture of the black saint. I was easily a head taller than a good number of the other altar-bearers, and so I made the slow, swaying pilgrimage around the alphabet avenues with bent knees and flexed thighs that ached for the rest of the week!
“Mommy, look at the crack in the church.” Around the turn of the millennium, my then preschool-aged daughter noticed the church’s structural problems before I did. We watched over the months as the crack gradually widened and the eastern wall threatened to pull away from the rest of the church. The archdiocese closed the parish in 2001. In the ensuing years, parishioners and community members formed the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church, valiantly organizing to stave off disaster and to get the church reopened for the community.
But though the committee was vigilant and broadened the outreach of the coalition through high-profile fundraisers and events, nobody could predict if or when the archdiocese might decide to demolish the church. In other words, the sudden appearance of the wrecking ball that July morning took us by surprise.
At that time, having just finished a stint of nearly a year as the project manager of the East Village Community Coalition (whose headquarters was often shared with other community groups), I had helped facilitate the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s use of the space, as well as assisting with press and outreach, and I had the numbers of the neighborhood committee members saved in my cell phone. With one eye on the wrecking ball, I began calling people that morning, and within half an hour the sidewalk was filling with distraught neighbors and committee members. (The names and testimonies of many of those intrepid neighbors are well documented in the August 2, 2006, edition of The Villager.)
We were all crying out, shouting out historical facts to the workers about the incalculable worth of the 1848 structure built by Irish shipwrights, pleading with them to spare the church — to no avail. Around 8 a.m., one of the workers, looking directly at the protesting crowd gathered below, with a sarcastic grin on his face, answered each of our pleas, each of our groans, as it seemed, by swinging the crowbar and smashing yet another pane of the ancient, hand-painted windows on the Eighth St. side where the people were standing.
It maddened us that the worker would have demolished the most ancient windows, hand-painted by artisans, first rather than starting with the less remarkable windows on the south side of the sanctuary. The Villager informs in its January 31, 2013, issue that St. Brigid’s new windows are actual stained, not painted, glass and therefore of higher quality than the destroyed windows. Yet our neighborhood can also find value in the humble history of the working families that settled here and their artifacts, even if their church windows were painted rather than stained glass, even if the decorative cornices on their tenement dwellings and public spaces were made of molded terra cotta or concrete rather than carved marble.
It seemed when the crowbar dramatically smashed the church windows that morning that all may have been lost. But we had also reached the coalition’s lawyer, Harry Kresky. By midmorning, the Department of Buildings had issued a stop-work order, and Kresky and the attorney for the archdiocese were in court before Judge Barbara Kapnick, who postponed demolition of St. Brigid’s to allow the Board of Standards and Appeals time to investigate whether or not the demolition permit was valid.
Miraculously, an anonymous donor came forward with $20 million to pay for the restoration of the church, and St. Brigid’s was saved.
St. Brigid’s story shows us that our community’s struggles, and even our losses, need never leave us without hope. Yes, the city evicted gardeners from Esperanza’s giant coqui. It bulldozed Esperanza, ABC, and so many other gardens. But the community founded new gardens, like De Colores, just down the block from St. Brigid’s. We blessed the gardens in rituals like Earth Celebrations’ seasonal garden processionals. And we achieved a protected status for the gardens on an official level.
Giuliani auctioned off the former P.S. 64, home to our community’s largest cultural center, CHARAS. Eight years later, having taken up the abandoned school’s occupier — the common pigeon — as our totem, we achieved the designation of landmark status for historic P.S. 64.
For years, alone or with a running partner, I would purposefully circle the East River Amphitheater on my morning runs, making a diagonal capoeira pass across the glass-strewn stage and reciting an original song or poem. Eventually the amphitheater reopened, stretching its new jet-wing canopy over free performances of experimental theater, rock music and salsa. We lose beautiful old theaters like the Charles on Avenue B to the bulldozer, but we keep creating new work and managed to burn the mortgage at Theater for the New City last month.
What might have happened if I had not gotten up to swim that morning in July 2006? It’s tempting to attribute magical significance to the little caring rituals we reinvent every day. But the faith and hope of a close-knit community ready to respond to a call of need in a matter of minutes are no accident. It seems fitting that I found out about the reopening of St. Brigid’s on the day of the first service through the grapevine, albeit through rather spiritually directed happenstance: Pastor Phil of Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish mentioned it to me earlier that day after I sang in Trinity’s choir. That evening, I took my place in the line that had formed in the cold outside St. Brigid’s and, after about an hour, I managed to get myself in the door, reconnect with some neighbors, take some photos on my phone, and then give up my space in the packed vestibule after the opening hymn to whatever official invitee was able to squeeze in.
Of course, there are a lot of projects still pending on our community wish list. I walk out my front door and rejoice that St. Brigid’s is safe. I gaze out my back window at the changes of seasonal light playing across the terra-cotta cornucopia nestled in the lintel of the building that once housed CHARAS, a building our community succeeded in landmarking against all odds, even after it was sold, a space slated for community use that more than a decade after CHARAS’s eviction stands empty. Like urban druids, let us continually renew our collective guardianship of our habitat with our mindfulness and rituals of community culture.