Volume 75, Number 9 | July 20- 26, 2005

Villager photos by Clayton Patterson

Edwin Torres and Carolyn Ratcliffe spoke at the rally last Sunday. “This church has been in every print of Tompkins Square Park from the time it was built,” Ratcliffe said. The park was built in 1834 and St. Brigid’s church in 1848.

Judge’s order stays wrecking ball at historic Ave. B Catholic church

By Albert Amateau

The former parishioners of St. Brigid’s Church went to State Supreme Court last week to stop the Catholic Archdiocese of New York from demolishing their church building on the east side of Tompkins Square Park.

State Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman issued a temporary restraining order against the demolition pending a July 25 hearing.

The lawsuit is the latest effort by the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s to preserve the 1848 church building at 119 Avenue B, which was closed in 2001 because of a dangerous crack in the east wall, and to revive their parish, which the archdiocese dissolved in 2004.

The parish closing was part of a realignment, still underway, of parishes in the New York Catholic Archdiocese, which includes Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx and seven counties to the north. Driven by financial problems and demographic changes, the realignment has supported parishes north of the city and closed or merged Manhattan parishes, including St. Ann’s on E. 11th St. and Our Lady of Guadalupe on W. 14th St. as well as St. Brigid’s.

Edwin Torres, a Committee to Save St. Brigid’s member and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, recalled last week that the committee has staged several marches and has submitted petitions to Cardinal Egan calling for support of parishioners’ efforts to save the building and the community of worshippers.

“We collected over $100,000 over the last four years to repair the crack in the church wall and we feel we’ve been misled,” Torres said.

Harry Kresky, attorney for the St. Brigid committee, said the suit to prevent demolition is based in part on the $103,000 that parishioners contributed to a fund to restore the church building. The money, however, was included in the parish general funds and went to pay general expenses before the parish was dissolved.

The archdiocese has acknowledged the money was given to restore the building, but says the sum is far below the $580,000 minimum estimated cost of making the 157-year-old church safe.

In the July issue of Catholic New York, the archdiocese said it would refund the money to St. Brigid’s parishioners who can prove they gave money to the fund. Torres, however, said the offer misses the point. “That’s not at all what we’re after,” he said.

The suit to prevent demolition is also based on state corporation law, said Kresky. In 1940, Cardinal Spellman made a covenant authorizing St. Brigid’s parishioners to form a board of trustees to be responsible for the church, Kresky said. The board doesn’t exist but the covenant suggests the parishioners, rather than the archdiocese, own the church, he added.

“I’m hopeful that we can reach some amicable agreement with the archdiocese and we’re very grateful for Judge Stallman’s efforts to make that happen,” Kresky said.

Joseph Zwilling, archdiocese spokesperson, said last week he was confident that the suit would be dismissed. “We have every right to proceed with the demolition,” he said, adding, “We’re in the process of getting a demolition permit.”

However, he insisted that the archdiocese has not yet decided what would replace the church building. In March 2004, the archdiocese secured an alteration permit to gut the church building and convert it into apartments with 29 units. But a demolition permit application indicates that plan has been dropped.

St. Brigid’s school building, on E. Seventh St. and Avenue B, is not involved in the demolition application, Zwilling said. The education department of St. Joseph’s College now runs the parish school.

The school building dates from the 1960s but the venerable church itself was built in 1848, the year of the Great Famine, by Irish boatwrights who worked in Downtown Manhattan’s East River boatyards. Patrick Keely, an Irish-born architect who designed Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Albany, designed the gothic-style church.

Members of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s have also joined a new lay group of Catholic parishes in Manhattan, mostly below 14th St., seeking a voice in the realignment of the archdiocese.

The group, the Lay Congress on Realignment, met last at the Juan Diego Center, the former Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on W. 14th St. near Seventh Ave. on July 13, with representatives from 17 parishes, according to Kathy King, a member of the St. Brigid’s committee.

“It’s a work in progress, a name in progress too,” said King, noting that in the latest issue of Catholic New York, Cardinal Egan said he intended to invite lay participation in the realignment process.

“We haven’t received the invitation yet, but we all share the same concern and there’s been a lot of anxiety,” King said. “We know that parishes Upstate are growing and need to expand, but we’re still here and we have not been offered a chance to come up with our own solutions,” she said.

A large-scale rally and concert in support of St. Brigid’s was planned for last Sunday in Tompkins Square Park, but was cancelled due to rain. Expected speakers included Pete Hamill, the writer and newspaper columnist, and Norman Siegel, the civil liberties attorney who is running for public advocate, and the Latino punk band Ricanstruction was to play.

Congregants, however, did hold a rally in front of the church. They were joined by Democratic District Leader Rosie Mendez, as well as Claudia Flanagan and Michael Lopez, all three of whom are running for City Council in District 2.

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