Volume 76, Number 11 | August 2 - 8, 2006

All Villager photos by Clayton Patterson,

These posters were pasted over the blue construction fence outside St. Brigid’s after construction workers smashed 158-year-old stained glass windows on the church’s north side.

Attempt to raze St. Brigid’s tests East Villagers’ faith

By Lincoln Anderson

It was an anxious week for East Villagers who have been fighting to save the turn-of-the-century old P.S. 64 and 158-year-old St. Brigid’s Church from demolition. Some neighbors and activists have been involved in both struggles, and probably could have used a scorecard to keep up with the flurry of emergency press conferences outside the two historic Avenue B buildings — located just a block apart — plus a candlelight vigil and court hearing.

Last Friday, State Supreme Court Judge Barbara Kapnick enjoined further demolition of St. Brigid’s Church until Aug. 24, pending a Board of Standards and Appeals hearing on the validity of the demolition permit.

However, at the old P.S. 64, developer Gregg Singer is continuing to scrape the facade in a desperate try to overturn the city’s landmarking of the building in June.

Last Thursday — just two days after demolition workers started hacking historic terracotta off the old P.S. 64 building on E. Ninth St. — a demolition crew a block to the south pounded an ugly hole through the back wall of St. Brigid’s Church, starting the destruction of the historic East Village famine church. The workers shoved antique wooden pews and delicate wainscoting from inside the church through the hole and into a rear yard. Then — as stunned and angry neighbors and former St. Brigid’s parishioners pleaded with him to stop — one of the workers, smiling, spun his bulldozer over the pile, crushing it all to bits.

Photo by Elsa Rensaa

A candlelight vigil outside St. Brigid’s on Thursday night led by, from left, Miguel Maldonado, attorney Harry Kresky and Councilmember Rosie Mendez.

“It makes me very sad as a Catholic,” said Councilmember Rosie Mendez, herself a former St. Brigid’s parishioner, as she stood looking at the hole on Thursday morning. “I think, for the archdiocese, it’s not about what the community needs, it’s about balancing the budget. They’re taking care of their lawsuits — but they’re destroying our community.”

Next morning at 7 a.m., to the anguish of about 20 neighbors, activists and former parishioners who showed up hoping to head off further destruction, the workers — this time wielding long crowbars — knocked out the seven, 25-foot-tall, painted, stained-glass windows on the church’s north side. Again, the neighbors and former parishioners begged them to stop.

“When I saw those crowbars destroying those stained-glass windows this morning, I thought about the Taliban destroying those Buddhas in Afghanistan,” said Matt Metzgar, a former East Village squatter who had been among the protesters shouting for the workers not to break the windows.

“We were all yelling ‘Stop!’ We were screaming,” said Beth Sopko. “We were all calling 311 and E.P.A, saying that there were hazardous conditions and dust.”

Patti Kelly, who has a stained-glass studio on Avenue C and also had sadly watched as the venerable windows depicting Jesus’ life were smashed, estimated they were worth $100,000 apiece.

“That was heartbreaking, because I know exactly what it takes to do those windows. It took them a year to do them,” she said.

Eric Rossi, an East Village activist, snuck into the church and onto its roof, from where he gave a speech. He talked about how old and historic the church was, how it was built by immigrants fleeing the Irish potato famine and how, more recently — during the days of the tent city in Tompkins Square Park and the homeless crisis — St. Brigid’s had opened its doors for the community to hold organizing meetings.

According to Deputy Inspector Dennis De Quatro of the Ninth Precinct, police told Rossi to come down and he then hid inside the church, where police found and arrested him, charging him with trespassing and disorderly conduct. De Quatro said that Rossi had apparently snuck into the church the night before.

An hour after the work had started, however, the Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order and two violations, for failure to light an interior stairway and combustible debris — wood.

A few hours later, seeking an injunction to stop the work, Harry Kresky, attorney for the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church, faced off in court against an archdiocese lawyer. Kresky argued that the archdiocese had not told the committee that on July 18 it had reconstituted the church’s board of trustees — with two newly appointed lay members, whose identities the archdiocese has not made public — and that the trustees had subsequently voted unanimously to demolish the church. Buildings had previously turned down Kresky’s appeal of the demolition permit, and he is now appealing this ruling to the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Neil Merkl, the archdiocese’s attorney, said the archdiocese wants to complete the demolition this summer before St. Brigid’s School next door reopens in the fall.

Judge Kapnick said the $103,000 the former congregation raised to repair the crack near the church’s eastern wall — but which was never applied toward this purpose and was instead taken and held by the archdiocese — can be used as the bond for the B.S.A. appeal. Parishioners and St. Brigid’s supporters in the courtroom applauded Kapnick when she proposed this idea, which she wrote into her ruling.

The church was closed in 2001 because of safety concerns caused by the crack, and, last year, the archdiocese dissolved St. Brigid’s parish.

St. Brigid’s supporters who had gone down to the hearing at 60 Centre St. — where they were joined by State Senator Martin Connor — rejoiced at getting a stay on the demolition, at least temporarily.

Believe in miracles

“The Lord is big. They had to stop it,” said Ida Rosado, clapping as she walked down the courthouse steps.

Rosado came to the East Village from Puerto Rico in 1947 when she was 17. St. Brigid’s was central to her life.

“I got married there. My son got married there,” she said. “My son got baptized there. His son got baptized there…. We can rebuild it again,” she said of the church, despite the damage inflicted by the archdiocese.

At a candlelight vigil outside St. Brigid’s the night before, East Villagers accused the archdiocese of planning to cash in by developing the prime property on the eastern edge of Tompkins Square Park.

A large silver crucifix ring on his finger, poet Barry Allen shouted, “Our Lord Jesus went into the temple and threw out the money changers — goddammit!”

“I love the building and the color, that beautiful yellow, right at the park,” said Susi Schropp. Though she never attended the church, she said, “It’s beyond just being a parishioner — it’s about the community being besieged.”

But Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese’s spokesperson, said lawsuits have nothing to do with the decision to demolish the church. He stressed that to repair the church would cost too much — “in excess of $7 million, with no guarantee that it would work.” An attempt to shore up the rear wall 15 years ago by installing concrete buttresses was a failure, and the wall continues to pull away from the church, he said.

Zwilling said the exact future use of the property hasn’t been determined, but that it will be some form of Catholic ministry or mission, such as a Catholic Charities service center, community center or youth center; a school; or senior housing. Cabrini Nursing, a Catholic organization that expressed interest in the site for senior housing in 2001 after the church closed, has been the only outside entity to approach the archdiocese so far about the property, Zwilling said.

“We have not spoken to anyone else about the property,” he explained. “We don’t have any plans to reach out…. If anyone cares to talk to us….”

If Cabrini, for example, took the property, it would be for a long-term lease of probably 50 to 100 years, Zwilling said. He said it was always Cabrini’s plan to build a new structure at the site, not reuse the existing building. The archdiocese has no interest in selling to a developer to use the property for a non-Catholic-related use, he said. Zwilling said a famine museum, as some have proposed, isn’t a likelihood either.

“Operating museums is not really in keeping with the mission of the archdiocese of New York,” he said. “We are in the business of meeting people’s spiritual, education and charitable needs…. Yes, we care about history,” Zwilling said. “But in making these decisions that cannot by the priority. We cannot give too much preference to one church.”

St. Brigid’s School will continue to operate as an archdiocesan Catholic elementary school, according to the archdiocese.

‘Not about lawsuits’

Asked about the alleged lawsuits that are believed by many to be driving, at least partly, the archdiocese’s restructuring of its parishes and real estate holdings, Zwilling responded, “Name me a lawsuit. The pedophile priests [lawsuits] — there are none. There have been no lawsuits involving sexual abuse of children. People can repeat it. I would hope you would print the truth that there are none. Only 1 percent of priests in the Archdiocese of New York were ever accused of abuse of minors. That’s lower than just about anybody.”

Despite the archdiocese’s justifications, the church’s supporters still can’t understand why the archdiocese wouldn’t want to save one of the oldest churches in the city.

 Tchan Montory, an artist originally from France who lives across from the church, said she’s shocked that such a building would be permitted to be demolished.

“For America, it’s old,” she said. “For the world, it’s not that old. I just find it mind-blowing. It’s a national treasure, and it’s something of importance to the world.”

She said she was also worried about the potential health effects of dust and asbestos from the demolition blowing into the neighborhood and across the avenue into the park where children play.

Jerome O’Connor, who used to own St. Dymphna’s bar on St. Mark’s Pl., originally had the idea to investigate the demolition permit to check if it was valid — which is the only thing currently standing in the way of the building being razed.

“You don’t tear down a 158-year-old church for anything,” O’Connor said. “I’d like to see all the Catholic churches leveled, because of what they do. But not this one.”

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