Volume 78 - Number 39 / March 4 -10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

From left, Rita Stelmokiene, Larry Wizman and Vida at last Thursday night’s two-year commemoration of the closing of Our Lady of Vilna Church on Broome St.

Soho church lacks an ‘angel,’ but they have faith in lawsuit

 By Lincoln Anderson

When St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village was  saved from the wrecking ball last year, it was a ray of hope to congregants from another Downtown Catholic church, Our Lady of Vilna on Soho’s western edge, praying for a miracle of their own.

A community lawsuit blocked St. Brigid’s destruction for two years, after which, in May 2008, an anonymous “angel” stepped in and pledged $20 million to save the church and also support St. Brigid’s school and other local Catholic schools. As a result of the huge donation, the Catholic Archdiocese agreed the Avenue B church would be spared and restored to a functioning house of worship.

While no “angel” has so far materialized bearing millions for Our Lady of Vilna, a group of Lithuanians and Portuguese who formerly attended the Broome St. church are instead counting on their lawsuit to keep the building standing.

Should they win their case, it would set a stunning precedent, under which parishioners would have the say over whether the Catholic Church has the right to raze its own churches in New York.

“We’re piggybacking off of that,” said Ramute Zukas, president of the Lithuanian-American Community, referring to the St. Brigid’s case.

“It’s exactly the model,” echoed Mindaugas “Gus” Blaudziunas.

Indeed, the Lithuanian group has the same attorney, Harry Kresky, who represented the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s.

About 25 members of the Our Lady of Vilna group gathered last Thursday evening on the sidewalk in front of the locked church. A hundred feet east of them, car headlights whisked by as a steady stream of traffic flowed into the Holland Tunnel. “Lavas. Lavas,” they greeted each other as they arrived. The night was significant: They were marking the two-year anniversary of the church’s sudden padlocking by the archdiocese.

Every Sunday morning for the past two years, they have rallied outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown, hoping Cardinal Egan will hear them. Afterward, they come down to Soho and hold a service on the church’s steps, followed by a meal of macrobiotic food prepared by Rita Stelmokiene, their spiritual leader.

The Church says the hundred-year-old building’s roof is structurally unsound and that the congregation had dwindled to the point where it no longer made sense to keep the church operating. Toward the end of last year, the archdiocese moved to demolish the church, but in January the parishioners got a court-ordered stay, which will remain in effect until their next court date, in May.

Simultaneously, another group, whom the Lithuanians refer to as “the Italians,” are pushing forward with a Vatican appeal. Represented by a canon lawyer, their appeal is now at the plenara, or highest level. A decision is expected soon. This group contains at least one member of the local Knights of Columbus chapter who regularly met at the church and used it as a sort of seniors clubhouse when services weren’t occurring.

A Lithuanian enclave once existed around Our Lady of Vilna. But with the tunnel’s construction and the suburbs’ lure, the community gradually vanished. Nevertheless, the church remains an undeniable magnet for Lithuanians in the New York region.

“It’s a cultural center — weddings, birthdays — it’s not just a church,” stressed Zukas. “It’s a Lithuanian heritage site.”

Holding candles and standing in a semicircle around the church’s steps last Thursday night, each member, in turn, said what Our Lady of Vilna meant to him or her.

“I walked in here in 1980 after visiting a Soho art gallery, not knowing what it was,” said one woman who only gave her first name, Vida. “I saw an icon on the wall.” She said she had no close family, but that the church “became like family.”

A former art teacher who lives in a walk-up on W. 14th St., she met her husband at the church. Praying to the Our Lady of Vilna icon — the Virgin Mary — saved her life, she believes.

“This painting healed me of cancer,” she said, clutching to her chest a picture of the icon with its nimbus of radiating gold beams.

Larry Wizman said the parishioners at Vilna, unlike most Catholic churches, were diverse in terms of age, race and income.

“I think this is the only truly Catholic church I have ever been in,” he declared.

Elana Naujikiene quietly shared her thoughts in Lithuanian. Speaking afterward in English, she said she won’t go to the Lithuanian church in Williamsburg that the archdiocese recommends they attend.

“I pray in Forest Hills Park,” she scoffed. “I stand under a tree and pray.”

 A smaller number of Portuguese who still live near the church also were congregants. Roy Louzeiro resides around the corner on Dominick St. and was baptized at Our Lady of Vilna.

“They were looking to demolish this to get $20 million for it,” he said of the church. He said he knows that the owner of the neighboring garage on the corner of Varick St. was offered up to $16 million for his property, but decided not to sell.

Trying to turn the development boom — or what had been the development boom — to their advantage, Louzeiro tried to contact Donald Trump, whose 46-story Trump Soho condo-hotel is being completed a block away at Spring and Varick Sts.

“I e-mailed him,” Louzeiro said. “I know it doesn’t go anywhere, it falls on deaf ears, because he’s a big shot. But he’s a Catholic.”

The parishioners certainly plan to reach out to the new archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, after he takes over April 15, hoping he’ll be more sympathetic to their cause.

Although the Vilna parishioners are heartened by the St. Brigid’s victory and say they hope to get support from the St. Brigid’s parishioners, they are skeptical that any “angel” put up $20 million for St. Brigid’s. Some actually suspect the money is from the archdiocese itself — and that there thus should be some for Our Lady of Vilna, as well.

But Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese’s spokesperson, said it’s absurd to think the anonymous donor is a myth.

“They’re saying there’s no donor for St. Brigid’s?” Zwilling asked. “Then they’re speculating, and they’re completely wrong. The archdiocese came up with that money? C’mon, please. We would have had to demolish St. Brigid’s if this donor had not come forward.”

Zwilling said the archdiocese recently asked the donor to go public, but that the donor still wishes to remain nameless. Zwilling said they are not even allowed to say whether the person is a man or a woman, or a Catholic.

“Now that the work’s going forward on St. Brigid’s, the archdiocese had asked the donor if they wanted to be a part of this,” Zwilling noted. “The donor has reiterated a desire that we not put forward any personal information.”

If the donor had not come forward, Zwilling said, the St. Brigid’s lawsuit would have gone to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court — and lost, as it did at the State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division.

“It is the generosity of the donor that is moving this forward,” he said. “And all these people who are taking bows in pubs are not a part of it. They really have nothing to do with this effort.”

Zwilling was referring to the recent celebration at Solas bar in the East Village where the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s came together to salute their hard-fought effort to save the Avenue B “Famine church” built by Irish immigrants.

After the anonymous donor came forward, the committee dropped their lawsuit.    “They decided not to spend any more of their money tilting at windmills,” Zwilling said.

Attorney Kresky chuckled at Zwilling’s dismissal of the community’s role in saving St. Brigid’s.

“I’m not speaking to the motives of the archdiocese or the anonymous donor,” Kresky said, “but on July 27, 2006, a wrecking crew arrived at St. Brigid’s and began taking the church down. The same day, we got a stay from State Supreme Court. Number one, if not for the stay, that church would be demolished. Number two, on Feb. 19, 2008, the Court of Appeals decided to hear the case. Several weeks later, $20 million from the donor was given. ... I have no reason to believe the donor doesn’t exist,” he added.

The Our Lady of Vilna case is basically the same as the St. Brigid’s case, Kresky said: that under Section 5 of the Religious Corporations Law, each church, as an individual incorporated entity, has a responsibility “to all members of the corporation” — which includes all the parishioners — to hold a vote on whether to demolish the building.

The Vilna parishioners lost in November at the State Supreme Court level — Kresky wasn’t representing them at that point, he noted — but the case will be heard at the Appellate Division in May.

Another issue, Kresky pointed out, is that the archdiocese has not said what it would do with the property if it razes Our Lady of Vilna.

“Right now, there is no intention to sell it,” Zwilling said of the Broome St. site. “It is not on the market.” He said other Catholic agencies might possibly be interested in it.

Kresky said a Court of Appeals loss by the archdiocese on the St. Brigid’s case would have meant that, while the Catholic Church could still decide whether a church would operate or not, the decision to demolish a church would be up to parishioners. At the previous level, an Appellate Division justice had written a powerful dissenting opinion that would have bolstered the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s case at the Court of Appeals, Kresky added.

But Zwilling said the Church would have prevailed.

“It also would have affirmed once and for all,” he said, “the right of the Archdiocese of New York to decide where its churches will be.”

In addition, Zwilling said there are no immediate plans for Mary Help of Christians Church at 12th St. and Avenue A, and that Sunday Masses in Spanish continue to be held there. The archdiocese recently purchased an adjacent strip of property in the church’s playground from the Salesians, a Catholic order that isn’t around in the area anymore, Zwilling said.

“We just thought it made sense for us to buy that strip,” he said.

Edwin Torres, chairperson of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, said their court case had boiled down to one principle: “The decision to demolish was made by Cardinal Egan. But no single person can decide the fate of the principal asset of the corporation; the disposition should be in the best interest of the nonprofit corporation — and the parishioners — which is the umbrella organization.”

As for Zwilling’s charge that the committee was “taking bows,” Torres responded, “We weren’t taking bows. We were being thankful. We were thanking the Lord.”

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