Volume 76, Number 9 | July 19 - 25, 2006

Despite setbacks, St. Brigid advocates keep the faith

By Albert Amateau

The effort to save St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B, built by Irish shipwrights in 1848 during the great famine in Ireland, is still alive despite two adverse court decisions, and the failure of an anonymous “angel” to convince the Catholic Archdioceses to give up its intention to demolish the derelict building.

Ed Torres, a leader of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church and a former member of the parish, which during the past three decades has been mostly Hispanic, said last week the committee is considering an appeal of the Appellate Division decision not to stop the archdiocese from razing the building.

Because the decision on June 29 by the five-judge panel was unanimous, taking the case on to the State Court of Appeals is a long shot. It would require permission from the Appellate Division, or failing that, an agreement by the Court of Appeals to hear the case.

Nevertheless, Harry Kresky, the attorney for the committee who brought the case to State Supreme Court last year and to the Appellate Division in June, said last week that within the next month he would seek permission to take it to the Court of Appeals.

The secret angel who offered in May to buy the church building from the archdiocese at “fair market” value and restore it for a nonprofit community or cultural use received a cool reception last month.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the archdiocese, said last week that while it still intends to demolish the building, the archdiocese hopes to use the property for another as-yet-undecided religious purpose. Zwilling said the angel made a similar offer last year. Gary Kravetz, the attorney representing the anonymous benefactor, said the offer last year was for a significant donation to the archdiocese, but this year it was to buy the building outright.

For Irish-Americans who recently became engaged in the effort to save St. Brigid’s, the cause is like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ned McGinley, national president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and John Hennesssey, New York president of the order, signed onto a June 22 letter to Cardinal Egan respectfully pleading to save the building.

The letter asks that St. Brigid’s “be available to future generations of Catholics who may one day want to see and touch the items that reflect the dedication and sacrifice of so many Irish for their Catholic church.” The Hibernians hope “St. Brigid will live on — even if no structural alternatives emerge — in a way that will permit Catholic New Yorkers to see and hear the story of St. Brigid’s and not have to do so by sorting through a basement in Dunwoodie in Yonkers.”

Last year, the archdiocese removed stained glass widows, statuary and altar furnishings from St. Brigid’s and stored it.

Five years ago, after the historic church building was declared structurally unsafe because of a crack in the east wall, the archdiocese obtained an alteration permit to convert the building into a residence for patients of the Cabrini Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The project was dropped and the archdiocese let the permit lapse. But in August 2005, a year after St. Brigid’s parish was dissolved as part of a diocesan restructuring, the archdiocese obtained a permit to demolish the church.

Jerome O’Connor, a Brooklyn resident and a newcomer to the St. Brigid cause, wrote to the Department of Buildings last month calling for revocation of the demolition permit. O’Connor contended the permit application was faulty because it was signed by a representative of the archdiocese, which the committee claims is not really the owner of the property.

Part of the committee’s legal grounds against the demolition is that a St. Brigid board of trustees, composed of three clergy members of the archdiocese and two lay members appointed by the archdiocese, is the official owner of the property and must approve any disposition of the building.

However, the board of trustees does not exist and no one remembers when it ever did, according to committee members. The archdiocese has named the three clergy members and has said it would appoint the two lay members when it makes a final decision about what to do with the property.

But based on O’Connor’s challenge, the Department of Buildings in June put the archdiocese on notice that it would have to prove the application was legal. On July 7, Christopher Santulli, Manhattan commissioner of the Department of Buildings, said in a letter to O’Connor that the archdiocese had replied it was preparing proof that the permit was valid. The matter was still pending at the end of last week.

O’Connor and an associate, Jimmy Smallhorn, who also lives in Brooklyn, met with other St. Brigid partisans at the Landmarks Preservation Commissioner offices on July 10 to submit a handful of requests for a designation hearing for St. Brigid’s. The commission, however, has not favored repeated neighborhood pleas to landmark the building designed by the 19th-century Irish-born architect Patrick Keely. The original building was considerably altered over the years and had its twin spires removed in the 1960s.

“They landmarked a concrete warehouse in Brooklyn; why can’t they landmark a church with 157 years of history?” asked O’Connor, referring to the recent designation of a warehouse designed by Cass Gilbert on the Williamsburg waterfront.

“If this building comes down, it’s the Irish themselves who’ll be to blame,” said Smallhorn, whose Irish accent remains strong after living the past 16 years in Brooklyn.

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