Volume 78 / Number 15, September 10 - 16, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Caroline Debevec

Four months after the Catholic archdiocese agreed to spare the Church of St. Brigid, the building still awaits renovation.

Nothing doing on St. Brigid’s yet, except in court

By Albert Amateau

A demolition permit for St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B was still in effect last week, despite the promise in May of this year of $20 million from an anonymous benefactor to restore the 1849 building and the East Village parish that the Catholic Archdioceses of New York dissolved in 2004.

But an archdiocese spokesperson said last week that architects were preparing plans and contractors were drawing up documents for building permits.

“We know the demolition permit has to be withdrawn and we decided to do it all at once,” said Joseph Zwilling. “There is no construction date and we’ll make an announcement when we have one.”

Nevertheless, Edwin Torres, president of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, the group that went to court in 2005 to prevent the church building’s demolition, said last week that the committee was troubled that the demolition permit was still on file at the Department of Buildings.

The committee, represented by attorney Harry Kresky and on appeal by attorney Marisa Marinelli of Holland & Knight, lost its cases over the past three years in State Supreme Court and in the Appellate Division, but was granted the right to take the case to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

The Committee to Save St. Brigid’s decided to pursue the appeal even after the archdiocese accepted the $20 million donation to repair the deteriorated church building and endow the area’s parochial schools.

“The case could affect other Catholic schools,” Kresky observed.

The Court of Appeals originally set Wed., Sept. 3, for a hearing, but on Monday the court postponed the hearing without setting a new date.

The issue was whether the parish board of directors, rather than the archdiocese, has the ultimate say on whether to demolish the church building. In the end, however, it is not likely to make any difference because the St. Brigid’s trustees include two archdiocese representatives plus the parish priest (assigned by the archdiocese) and two lay members of the parish — resulting in a 3-to-2 archdiocese majority on the board.

A State Supreme Court judge and the Appellate Division both ruled that in a hierarchical church, like the Catholic Church, the archdiocese has the ultimate say on whether to demolish a church building.

Shortly before the Court of Appeals hearing date, archdiocese lawyers urged the court to rule the case moot and to dismiss it because the archdiocese accepted the $20 million to restore the church building and the parish.

However, the committee’s lawyers noted that the archdiocese has received only $5 million of the promised $20 million and is scheduled to receive the rest before year’s end.

“So, we asked for a new hearing date shortly after Dec. 31 but the Court of Appeals hasn’t set one yet,” Torres said.
Zwilling said that if the case is heard, he is confident the Court of Appeals would agree with the two lower courts.

“The archdiocese had the right to decide to demolish the building, just as it had the right to accept the donation and restore it,” he said. The decision to restore St. Brigid’s is completely separate now from the court case, he added.

The building, designed by Patrick Keely and built 160 years ago by Irish boatwrights who worked the East River boatyards, was declared unsafe in 2001 because of a crack in the east wall. Masses were shifted to the basement cafeteria of the school, built in 1959 at Avenue B and E. Seventh St.

In 2003, the archdiocese got a permit to convert the church to a residence, possibly as a new home for the Cabrini nursing and rehabilitation home on E. Fifth St.; but the permit languished.

In 2005, after the archdiocese dissolved the parish the year before, citing declining Catholic population, the 2003 building permit was changed to a demolition permit and the committee went to court to stop the church’s demolition.

The anonymous donation, announced almost four months ago, included $10 million to repair the structural problems of the building at 119 Avenue B and restore it as a parish church, plus $2 million for a parish endowment and $8 million for St. Brigid’s school and other area Catholic schools that need help.

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