Malachy McCourt reading at last Thursdays benefit to help save St. Brigids Church
Irish bards sing a love song for St. Brigids Church
By Lincoln Anderson
Villagers traveled north of 14th St. last Thursday to Connollys near Times Square to attend Bards for St. Brigids, a benefit to raise funds for the legal defense effort to save historic St. Brigids Church on Avenue B from demolition.
So far, the fight has been waged by the Committee to Save St. Brigids, a group largely made up of the Puerto Rican parishioners who held services at the church on the east side of Tompkins Square Park until a few years ago, when a crack on one of its walls rendered the building dangerous, according to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The archdiocese more recently dissolved St. Brigids parish and reportedly now plans to reuse the site for some sort of church-related facility.
Although the East Village is no longer an Irish neighborhood as it was 158 years ago when Irish boatwrights built St. Brigids, Irish-Americans are now at last rallying to the cause of trying to save this famine church of the Lower East Side one of the churches built to serve the waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the great potato famine.
Paul Dougherty, a video editor who lives in the East Village whose grandfather worshipped at St. Brigids, organized last Thursdays benefit, along with Larry Kirwan of the Irish rock group Black 47 and Mary Ann Pierce, a friend of Doughertys who is a Webcaster from the Upper West Side, who sold the tickets online. Six hundred people bought tickets at $20 apiece, St. Brigids T-shirts were sold for $25 each and $17,000 in total was raised.
It was an evening of readings and song interspersed with poignant remarks about St. Brigids. The readings formed a mosaic of the Irish-American experience in all its many facets, from the Troubles in Ireland, to Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers, gays efforts to march in the New York City St. Patricks Day Parade and just ribald humor.
The cause of saving St. Brigids is not about saving the Irish past and what we came through. Its where were going, said Pete Hamill, before reading a chapter from his autobiography. It stands as a symbol for the Chinese and Jews and Italians and Latinos, Hamill said of St. Brigids.
Carmel Quinn, the singer and storyteller, mockingly referred to Cardinal Edward Egan as Edward Scissorhands, the moniker he earned in Bridgeport, Conn., before he came to New York.
God almighty, whats wrong with the cardinal? she asked. God knows, hes got enough.
Anne McGuire of the Irish and Lesbian Gay Organization said, I hope that St. Brigids is saved because I really dont want another N.Y.U. dorm in the East Village.
There were cheers and someone shouted out a Yay! of agreement.
Malachy McCourt, who is running for governor on the Green Party ticket, read an uproarious story from his memoir, Monk Swimming about turning the tables on an annoying coat-checker by stripping naked and then putting his overcoat back on before checking it. Then he broke into the traditional courting song Go, Lassie Go, and suddenly the whole place was singing along with him, everyone knowing the lyrics by heart.
And well all go together/to pick that wild mountain thyme/all around the bloomin heather/Will you go, lassie go?
Sing it children! he called out probably just as his father did to him and his brothers when they were young, as described in his brother Franks Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Angelas Ashes.
Sergeant Conor McCourt, Malachys son, who supervises the Times Square police, popped in to see what seditious acts his father was up to.
After the four-hour marathon had ended, the events organizers and others stressed its not too late to save the church. A lawsuit seeking to bar the churchs demolition is currently before the Appellate Court.
Its not too late, said Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who used to attend Mass at St. Brigids. The Bible says: The faith of a mustard seed anything is possible. Mustard seeds are tiny but they grow. Its been a couple of years since they closed the church, and were still fighting.
One man has the power to save this church and if we can get to him, we can do it, said Black 47s Kirwan, a former East Villager who now lives in Soho.
Although an angel with deep pockets has recently come forward saying he wants to buy the building and convert it to nonprofit use, some expressed concern at what this might mean for the historic church. Most said theyd like to see St. Brigids remain a functioning church, while others also said theyd like to see it become like St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery a church with an active arts contingent. Kirwan said hed personally want it to remain a working church, but also become an Irish famine museum.
The Irish didnt commemorate the famine, because they couldnt understand it how God could do this, Kirwan said. They didnt want to mention it. There were no songs about it.
He noted his bands name, Black 47, is what the famine is called in Ireland.
The boatwrights carved their faces atop the pillars inside the church, he added, quite unusual for Catholicism.
You can actually see the faces of the people that built it, he said. We cant afford to let it go
. What are we going to have there? Some new glass and chrome? Stupid. Is that our monument as modern people?
Irish famine memorials prefab, Kirwan derisively called them have been created in Boston and Lower Manhattan, but here on Avenue B is a monument that already exists, he said.
Afterwards, Edwin Torres, a leader of the Committee to Save Brigids, said, I think the event was a success. One of our objectives was to make the Irish-Americans aware of this and I think we did that and also there are now more funds for our legal struggle.
Now its a citywide, and perhaps a national issue, added Roland Legiardi-Laura of the East Village Community Coalition of the positive P.R. effect of the benefit. Pierce said shes going to try to sell the podcast of the event and also an audiotape to National Public Radio to help get the message out.
Dougherty explained hed like to see St. Brigids restored the way the Eldridge St. Project is reviving the Eldridge St. Synagogue.
Its a tough act to follow, he said. But, I thought, Why cant we do the same thing? Their system is decentralized. Ours is centralized, hierarchical. Its daunting. They just had to broker a deal with a minyan, the board, whatever. But somehow, something is doable. Its an uphill battle, but theres a shot. Even though its late in the court process, this is the first time our message has gotten out.
It just seems foolish to build famine memorials, he said, If youve got one thats the real deal.