Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

Villager photos by Elissa Bogos

Pict. 1: Father Eugene Sawicki giving communion at Our Lady of Vilnius Church during a weekday Mass.

Pict. 2: Church members offer contributions and sign a petition to prove that Our Lady of Vilnius is being actively used for Masses.

Pict. 3: Francis Healy, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus Knickerbocker Council 221, left, and a fellow knight sitting in the back after the service.

Pict. 4: “Frankie Pretzels” makes some impromptu repairs.

Pict. 5: Our Lady of Vilnius is a small church with a yellow-brick facade. Its sanctuary can seat about 175 people.

Lady of Vilnius and ‘Pretzels’and ‘Provolone’ may lose home

By Lincoln Anderson

In the latest threatened Downtown church closing, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York is planning to shutter Our Lady of Vilnius, a Lithuanian church on Broome St. in Hudson Square.

Hard by the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, the small, yellow-brick, 101-year-old church is still used by Lithuanians from around the metropolitan area who gather there once or twice a month. A local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order, also meets there five days a week; old-timers with colorful nicknames like “Frankie Pretzels” and “Joe Provolone,” they play gin rummy, drink coffee and shoot the breeze. Weekday lunchtime Masses draw a diverse crowd of office workers from the surrounding neighborhood. Local residents, including some Portuguese from across Varick St., attend Mass on weekends.

Four years ago, however, during a winter of extreme temperature fluctuations of freezing and thawing, some of the four trusses supporting the church’s roof cracked. Engineers assessed the trusses and determined that, if not bolstered with steel cables, the roof was at risk of collapse. For the last three and a half years, the church sanctuary has been closed — wedged between the pews is a three-story scaffolding supporting the ceiling — and services and functions have been held in the basement.

Last Thursday, after conducting the noon Mass, Father Eugene Sawicki, the church’s cigar-smoking pastor, told of how the week before he was summoned by Edward Cardinal Egan to the archdiocese’s Midtown headquarters. The meeting came about after two lay trustees and the parish council chairperson wrote the cardinal in June asking why their letter to him from two years ago about the roof still had not been answered.

Sawicki said he had a hunch what he would hear when he entered the cardinal’s office. Egan was there, along with his secretary and the head of the archdiocese’s real estate division.

“He said, ‘We’re going to close the church,’ ” Sawicki said the cardinal told him. “I said, ‘That’s a mistake.’

“He outlined why they wanted to do it. He said it’s not imminent. He said he’s not going to close it tomorrow. He said he has never sold any property.”

Since the roof problem was discovered, Our Lady of Vilnius has asked for help but received little.

“Two and a half years ago, we reported it, and they’ve done nothing, other than put in a de-icer,” Zawicki said of the roof problem. “Fifteen-, twenty thousand [dollars], it’s nothing to put in cables. Removing the ceiling would take the weight off the roof. A new slanted ceiling could be put in cheaply. This has to be done before the next snowfall, because the engineers say the roof can’t handle a heavy snowfall.”

Speaking last week, Joseph Zwilling, an archdiocese spokesperson, said he believed a final decision had been made to close Our Lady of Vilnius but that no date for the last Mass had been set.

“The church has been in poor physical condition and needing a lot of repairs,” Zwilling said. “There is a Lithuanian congregation in Brooklyn, I believe, that the people could attend. My understanding is that Mass is not celebrated there in Lithuanian and has not been for some time,” he said of Our Lady of Vilnius.

Our Lady of Vilnius is a national — not a territorial — parish, Zwilling noted, meaning it was established to meet the language and cultural needs of immigrants.

“I was not aware there that there was a Knights of Columbus chapter there,” he noted of the church. “I am sure there would be another church that would welcome them.”

Hudson Square is currently one of the city’s hottest areas for luxury residential development, with new glass-and-steel buildings sprouting up all over. Asked if the archdiocese plans to sell Our Lady of Vilnius, Zwilling said, “Nobody said anything about selling the church, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Nothing has been ruled in or out at this point. Our first preference is always to find a Catholic use for it.

“It’s also not a very attractive location — right by the tunnel,” he added.

It was construction of the tunnel, which opened in November 1927, that uprooted a Lithuanian community — no trace of which remains today — that was once near the church.

Joy McAleer, Our Lady of Vilnius’s secretary, said an elderly Lithuanian man named Anton Dededinas who used to attend the church as a child told her a few months ago about the former community. He said when the tunnel was built, the west side of Varick St, where Lithuanians lived in one-family houses, was destroyed, while the east side of Varick, where there were Italians, was spared. One day shortly after telling her this, Dededinas appeared at the church and it was evident he’d succumbed to Alzheimer’s. McAleer thinks he’s now in a nursing home.

Waterfront roots

Our Lady of Vilnius’s first pastor, who helped build the church, was Father Shistokasa, a longshoreman who worked the docks at night and ministered by day.

The current pastor, Father Zawicki, a former firefighter, dispenses down-to-earth wisdom at his Masses. Last Thursday, he counseled the worshippers to enjoy the summer weather and put off deep thinking for a while. Let go and have a whiskey if you want, he offered; share some quality time with a friend.

Yet, while he holds daily Masses in the church’s basement, without use of the church proper, he’s constrained from being able to do baptisms, weddings and funeral Masses. The basement isn’t appropriate for any of these, not to mention the fact that a coffin can’t fit through the basement door, he noted. Last Friday, Sawicki conducted a funeral Mass for Mary Parvin, who ran the Fourth Estate magazine and coffee shop on Hudson St. in Tribeca — but he had to do it at St. Joseph’s Church in the Village.

“Who wants to be mourned in a gym hall/dance floor?” Zawicki said of Our Lady of Vilnius’s basement. Zawicki hears confession in closets, hallways, stairwells or on the street.

Despite Zwilling’s statement to the contrary, Zawicki says he still does do Sunday Masses in Lithuanian.

The father and local Lithuanian leaders all say the church in Maspeth that the archdiocese is suggesting they use is so inconvenient the Lithuanians won’t go there.

Laima Hood, chairperson of the New York chapter of the Lithuanian Union, a national organization, said Our Lady of Vilnius is the chapter’s only Manhattan location. Events at the church used to see poetry readings and children’s parties but fell off after the church was closed because of the roof problem. Having to hold Mass downstairs is cramping use of the space for other activities, she said. One hundred to 200 Lithuanians still use the church once to twice a month, she said.

“The organ was restored just before the roof collapse,” Hood added. “We were planning to have organ concerts — and the church has very good acoustics. And because of the roof we couldn’t celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2005.

“The Maspeth one is difficult to get to if you don’t have a car. And it’s a very restricted area, so there’s not much parking,” she said of the Transfiguration Church. Plus, she added, that church is used by other groups at night, as opposed to Our Lady of Vilnius.

Jovita Sleder, president of Council 12 of the Knights of Lithuania, said Maspeth is just too far for some members from New Jersey or Connecticut to travel.

“If we lose the church, I just don’t know where we’re going to go,” said Sleder, who lives in Bushwick, where Lithuanians settled after World War II. Sleder said she’d also like to know what happened to the insurance money that church members paid, which could be used to repair the roof.

“Apparently, the money was given to the archdiocese and never released,” she said.

Zwilling was out of the office until Thursday and couldn’t be reached for comment regarding the whereabouts of the insurance money.

Broome St. knights

While Father Sawicki is the center of the church’s spirituality, the Knights of Columbus are its color and soul. Known as the Knickerbocker Council 221, one of the country’s oldest Knights of Columbus chapters, they celebrated their centennial in 1997. They are — by their reckoning — the only active knights group in Lower Manhattan between 14th St. and the Battery. The clubhouse has moved around over the years, starting out in Hell’s Kitchen.

Ranging in age from their 60s to 80s, these men all grew up in the area before the neighborhoods were dubbed Soho and Hudson Square. Many of them are war veterans. Many attended St. Alphonsus School on Thompson St., which was connected to St. Alphonsus Church, both of which were demolished in the 1980s and later replaced by the Soho Grand hotel.

All of the guys at Our Lady of Vilnius are third-degree knights, according to Francis Healy, the chapter’s grand knight. He said he couldn’t divulge the tests taken to reach higher levels, noting, “It’s supposed to be a secret organization.”

A former Teamster, Healy, 80, grew up on Renwick St. in a family of 10 kids. He now lives at Greenwich and Canal Sts.

“I didn’t go far,” he quipped.

Other regulars include Edmund De Pol, who used to work in a machine shop; Joe “Joe Provolone” Donnarumma, who used to work at World of Cheese on Chambers St., and his Maltese, Noel — “she watches me lose at cards,” he joked — Joe Pantuliano, a former First Precinct cop; Jack “John” Cooke and “Frankie Pretzels.”

“We all have nicknames,” noted De Pol, 77. “ ‘Eddy Cake’ they call me because I buy the cake.”

“Love it,” said Donnarumma, 68, of the knights’ Broome St. church clubhouse. “We’re brothers, brother knights. The last of a dying breed, the last of an old-time neighborhood.”

In that old-time neighborhood, the waterfront loomed large. Cooke, 73, who lives in Independence Plaza in Tribeca, used to work the docks between Canal and 14th Sts. He was dock boss at Pier 45 — today known as the Christopher St. Pier — when the Norwegian-American Line operated there. Back then, the docks were rough, but it wasn’t as bad as depicted in “On the Waterfront,” he said.

“It wasn’t all corruption,” he said. “There were a million laughs and the work got done…. There were guys out there who’d eat you alive — I held my own.”

Pier 40, the former Holland America Line pier at W. Houston St., was always a longshoremen’s favorite because it meant free Heinekens — an extra 3 percent to 5 percent of beer was included in the shipments to account for breakage.

The knights are happy to be at the church, and the church is happy to have them. They help set up for the daily Mass and pitch in with repairs.

“They do a lot of work in the church — cleaning,” said secretary McAleer. “The other day, Pretzels was cleaning everything up — the drains in the backyard.”

“ ‘Pretzels,’ they all have nicknames — It’s like ‘The Sopranos’ over there,” quipped Father Sawicki.

Both church and knights alike say they’re seeing a lot of new residents in the area nowadays, including women pushing baby carriages. Former office space and commercial lofts are being converted to residences and the population is booming. All these new neighbors will need someplace to pray.

“Trump is coming,” noted Sawicki.

He was referring to the 45-story, condo-hotel planned by Donald Trump on Spring St. between Varick St. and Sixth Ave.

The Knights don’t know where they’d go if Our Lady of Vilnius closes. St. Anthony’s Church on Sullivan St. — whose pastor is a fourth-degree Knight of Columbus — seemed an option a few years ago, but now its basement is home to a daycare program.

Asked where he’d wind up if the church closed, Healy said, “Sitting in a bar somewhere…feeding the pigeons. If the church closes, we’d be out on the street…. But it’s not the club we’re worried about. It’s the church.”

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