Volume 76, Number 15 | August 30 -September 5, 2006

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Mary Help of Christians parishioners, with Councilmember Rosie Mendez and Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman in pedicab, made the rounds last Sunday of East Village Catholic churches threatened with closure or demolition.

Prayerful march to save what’s left of East Village’s churches

By Albert Amateau

About 100 parishioners of Mary Help of Christians, one of several churches marked for closing by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, marched in the rain last Sunday through the streets of the East Village.

Singing hymns in Spanish and English, they gathered at noon on the steps of their church on E. 12th St. near Avenue A and prayed that Cardinal Edward Egan would have a change of heart and revoke the decision to close the church.

With a police escort and accompanied by local elected officials, they then marched to Avenue B at E. Eighth St. to St. Brigid’s Church, built by Irish boatwrights in 1849 and declared unsafe in 2001 when services moved to the school building until the archdiocese dissolved the parish in 2004.

Three days earlier in the bright sunshine, the faithful who had worshiped at St. Brigid and Irish-American advocates went to Foley Square to support the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s court fight to stop the archdiocese from demolishing the church. Justice Barbara Kapnick continued a temporary injunction against tearing down the historic building for a couple of weeks, but the archdiocese intends to persist in its demolition plans. Kapnick indicated she would rule on the injunction shortly after Labor Day.

But in the rain on Sunday, Mary Help of Christians marchers prayed for their St. Brigid neighbors’ last-ditch efforts to keep the building intact, at least as a memorial to the Irish founders and as center for the largely Hispanic congregation.

Down Avenue B, the marchers then went west on E. Third St. to Most Holy Redeemer Church where many from St. Brigid’s now worship.
“It’s not closed, but considering the number of church closings in the neighborhood, we want to pray for it,” said Josephine Gaglio, a Mary Help of Christians parishioner who organized the march.

City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, riding in a pedicab since she’s still recovering from recent knee surgery, told reporters that churches like Mary Help of Christians and St. Brigid’s are cultural and religious cores of the neighborhood.

“Mary Help of Christians is appealing the decision and the archdiocese has indicated it would review the case, so we’re still hopeful,” Mendez said.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stinger and Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman also took part in the march, which continued on to Church of the Nativity on Second Ave. and Second St. — where Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker, once worshiped. Nativity is also marked for closure by the archdiocese as part of a general realignment of parishes where demographics have changed and Catholic populations are declining.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the archdiocese, was unavailable at press time for comment, but he has previously said the archdiocese intends to use the properties for other Catholic purposes and does not intend to sell them.

But Gaglio noted that Extell, a major residential developer, has acquired 17 rent-regulated buildings between E. 14th and E. Houston Sts., including two properties at 191 Avenue A and 444 E. 12th St. next to Mary Help of Christians Church.

“Extell bought those two buildings in February just two months before the announcement of the closure of our school and church. We feel this is not just coincidence,” Gaglio said.

From Second St., the marchers walked up Third Ave. to E. 12th St., the site of the former St. Ann’s Church, which the archdiocese sold in February 2004 to Hudson Companies for a reported $15 million. Hudson is now building a 26-story building — exploiting air rights purchased from the Cooper Station Post Office — for a New York University dormitory. A coalition of neighbors and political clubs, however, has filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Postal Service’s sale of air rights.

Mary Help of Christians parishioners ended the march back at their church off Avenue A. The church was founded by the Silesian Missioners to serve Italian immigrants about 100 years ago.

“Our church has the only full-time and comprehensive youth ministry — Los Amigos for children from ages 9 to 13, and the high school group for ages 14 to 19,” Gaglio said. “We’re also the only Catholic church in the city with a young adult ministry that attracts more than 100 college-age people from all over the city,” she added.

The diocese realignment last spring called for additional churches in the northern suburbs.

“It seems that the archdiocese doesn’t care about Mary Help of Christians services. The churches that survive are the ones that give the archdiocese a lot of money. Mission and evangelization doesn’t seem to mean much,” Gaglio said.

Last week, the attorney for the archdiocese, John Callegy, argued in the St. Brigid’s case that the 1849 building on Avenue B was in danger of collapse and should be demolished. But Harry Kresky, attorney for the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, said that while the building was in bad condition, demolition was not necessary.

The St. Brigid’s committee is challenging the validity of the archdiocese demolition permit from the city Department of Buildings. Kresky contends the building really doesn’t belong to the archdiocese but to the St. Brigid’s board of trustees, composed of three Catholic clergy named by the archdiocese and two lay members, also named by the archdiocese. Moreover, Kresky claims the board of trustees must consult with the members of the parish on any decision to dispose of the property

The two lay members were appointed in July and the five-member board met July 18 and ratified the decision to demolish the church. Kresky said the lay members were named in an “11th-hour appointment,” as a convenience to approve the demolition. He also noted that the archdiocese does not have any plans yet for the property, so there is no compelling reason to raze the church.

Neighbors, former parishioners headed by Edwin Torres and Irish-American preservation advocates want the building to be made safe, restored and to be used as a community cultural center if it cannot serve as a church,

A secret benefactor has offered to buy the building from the archdiocese at market rate and support its restoration.

Most recently, Greg Singer, the controversial developer and owner of the old P.S. 64 CHARAS/El Bohio building a block from the church, has also offered to buy St. Brigid’s and preserve it as a cultural center or finance its preservation.

But the archdiocese recently said St. Brigid’s is not for sale and is intended for a religious purpose.

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