Volume 76, Number 4 | June 14 - 20 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Above, attorney Harry Kresky, wearing hat, and Paul Dougherty, holding a photo of his grandfather, who attended St. Brigid’s Church. Below, a demonstrator at the rally before Tuesday’s court hearing.

Wealthy ‘angel’ offers salvation for St. Brigid’s Church on Ave. B

By Albert Amateau

Just before an Appellate Division hearing seeking to stop the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York from demolishing St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B, an “angel” announced through a lawyer that he wanted to buy the 1849 structure “at a fair market price intending to restore it and use it for nonprofit purposes.”

Gary Kravetz, the attorney who issued the offer on behalf of the anonymous client, declined in a telephone interview to say whether the offer had been made to the archdiocese yet, and a spokesperson for the archdiocese could not be reached by press deadline for comment.

The offer for the church, built 157 years ago by Irish boat builders on the east side of Tompkins Square Park, was made public at a June 13 news conference with a pronounced Irish flavor in front of the Appellate Division courthouse.

Paul Dougherty, a new member of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church, along with representatives of the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies, joined committee president Edwin Torres in pleading their cause near the courthouse steps.

“My grandfather was a parishioner of St. Brigid’s and raised eight kids in the neighborhood,” said Dougherty, an East Village resident. Dougherty said he got involved with the issue recently after the archdiocese announced its most recent round of church and school closings in Downtown Manhattan.

“I hadn’t been going to Mass until I heard that Church of the Nativity [on E. Second St.] was facing closure, and so I started going to Mass there,” he said.

“St. Brigid’s Church is an extremely important piece of New York, American and Catholic history,” said the anonymous benefactor in the statement issued by his lawyer. The building, constructed during the famine year 1848-’49, should be preserved “as a testament to the faith of impoverished immigrants escaping the famine and restrictions on their religion,” the statement says, calling on decision makers at the archdiocese to engage with him “to see if a winning outcome is possible for the archdiocese, the neighborhood of St. Brigid’s and for historic preservation.”

Harry Kresky, attorney for the committee who sued the archdiocese last year to prevent demolition, told the crowd outside the courthouse that part of his argument was based on his contention that the church building really belongs to the St. Brigid board of trustees — five members, including the bishop, the vicar general, the parish priest and two lay members of the parish appointed by the bishop.

But the board has not been active in years and the lay members have not been appointed. The archdiocese contends the three clerical members can make the decision to demolish the church.

Kresky, however, contends that the decision can only be made by a fully constituted board with the two appointed lay members.

“Last year, there was no offer to buy the church and preserve it,” he told reporters outside the courthouse. “If there were lay members on the board now, maybe they could bring the other members to their senses and make them consider the proposal,” he said.

The historic church has been vacant since 2001 when a crack in the rear wall became so severe that it was declared unsafe and worship was shifted to the basement of the St. Brigid’s parish school at the corner of E. Seventh St., which was built in 1959 and continues to be run by the archdiocese.

Nevertheless, in September 2004, the Trinitarian Order, whose priests ran the parish, decided to pull out, and Cardinal Edward Egan dissolved the parish.

Moreover, since 2003, St. Brigid’s mostly Latino parishioners had been donating to a fund to rebuild the historic church, and had collected $103,000. The sum, minus about $30,000 that went for parish expenses, is being held by the archdiocese.

Kresky and the committee contend that acceptance of the rebuilding money was a “tacit agreement” to restore the church, designed by Patrick Keely, a 19th-century Irish-American architect. The archdiocese, however, contends that there was no implied promise and has offered to return the money to parishioners who prove they made the donations.

The archdiocese has said it would take $600,000 or more to restore the church to safe use. But, at the June 13 news conference, Torres said that he had engaged an engineering survey of the building and determined that it needed less that $300,000 to restore the building.

Torres noted, however, that last year the archdiocese had removed and taken to storage the interior furnishings, altarpieces and statuary.

The lawyer for the anonymous benefactor said he did not know whether his client’s offer to buy the church included the rectory next door, which the archdiocese also intends to demolish and presumably sell to a developer.

More than two years ago, the archdiocese secured an alteration permit to convert the church building into apartments. But that permit was replaced last year when the Department of Buildings issued a demolition permit. The demolition permit is on hold pending the decision by the Appellate Division. The five-judge court is not under any time constraint on when to decide, and Kresky would not hazard a guess.

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