Volume 78 - Number 41 / March 18 -24, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

New St. Brigid’s must be more than a ‘vanilla box’ 

By Roland Legiardi-Laura

Like many people in our community I was ecstatic last spring when I learned that after years of confrontational struggle between the archdiocese and the neighborhood, St. Brigid’s Church had finally been saved. Salvation came in the form of a $20 million gift from a very generous and very anonymous donor. Of that $20 million, $8 million was to be spent on St. Brigid’s school next door to the church, $2 million was to be wisely reserved as a maintenance and repair fund for the church, with the remaining $10 million spent on the restoration of the church itself.

Now that details are emerging about the exact scope and nature of the “restoration” (“St. Brigid’s will have elevator and new A/C, but no steeples,” The Villager, March 4), I am quite concerned. It is certainly true that $10 million isn’t what it used to be, and the scope of a complete and careful restoration, returning St. Brigid’s to its full 19th-century glory is more bang than 10 million ’09 bucks could buy. One would have expected, however, that the new cardinal and his incendiary spokesperson, Joseph Zwilling, would be more sensitive to the importance of this project and commit to the principle that the work being done is only part of a grand plan to one day return St. Brigid’s to the city as a beautiful landmark structure and living reminder of its history and mission. 

Rather, Zwilling states that the stenciled windows that were destroyed on the orders of Cardinal Egan in August ’06 were worthless. Worthless indeed — they were 150-year-old relics, appropriate to the period of the church’s construction, and could have easily been restored. Similar windows now adorn Trinity Church on Wall St. and Calvary-St. George’s Church on E. 21st St. I’d love to see a copy of the appraiser’s report he flaunts. Zwilling talks about returning a “functioning parish church” to the community. Thank you, spokesperson Zwilling, but the community had a beautiful, fully functioning, historically unique piece of architecture in its midst before the archdiocese dismantled it, discarded sacred elements and smashed holes in its walls. One could rent a tent if functionality was all that was required. 

If I were that generous and anonymous donor, I would insist that my gift be used wisely, not just to create a plain vanilla box with an elevator and an A/C system. I would insist on a transparent design and bidding process.

If I were a hardworking parishioner of St. Brigid’s and I had seen my church stripped bare and many of its relics damaged or destroyed, I would demand to see the plans and the construction budget before the project was put out to bid. I would also demand the right to modify the plans, and I would want to submit my own list of qualified contractors and have them offer competitive bids.

If I were the architect, Acheson Doyle Partners, I would be more mindful of the best possible job that could be done. I would encourage a phased construction plan that allowed complete historical restoration over time. They are clearly exaggerating when they suggest that it would cost almost the full $10 million just to rebuild the steeples. We have much cheaper, lighter, weather-resistant, sturdier and greener construction materials these days — better engineering and smarter design, as well. The original steeples stood for 120 years before time took them down. Of course they can be rebuilt!   

If I were a member of the city’s preservation community, I would offer publicly to assist the archdiocese with its plans and urge it to do justice to this important edifice.

If I were a member of the community board or an elected official, I would expect that the plans be shared publicly prior to the award of any contracts, and I would represent my community aggressively to ensure that a building of this importance be brought back into service with the care and honor it deserves.

And if I were the Irish-American community that fought so hard for years to save St. Brigid’s, I wouldn’t just sit there and accept a perfunctory repair of the structure, nor would I permit any restoration to omit honoring the Irish-Americans, as spokesperson Zwilling implies will be done, who came to escape the great famine and build this church with their bare hands.

Almost all religious structures from Stonehenge on were built over long periods of time, as money and/or material could be found and the flock encouraged to donate. This is a venerable tradition. Some folks more cynical than I would suggest that these kinds of projects were ingenious cash cows for the given denomination. The church fathers, the cynical might also suggest, collected money, and only a small portion of it was ever used to actually improve the structures. 

Who am I to quibble with the ways of the Lord — the extraordinary Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been under continuous construction for the last hundred years, and beautiful cathedrals like Chartres took centuries to complete. New York’s own St. John the Divine seems as much about the nature of epic project architecture as it is about creating a home for the spirit. Why not St. Brigid’s?  What do I know? I’m just a neighbor, who happens to live across the street from St. Brigid’s. The building I live in, a city landmark, was recently restored. The work took almost three years. The cost: significantly less than 5 percent of the total restoration budget of St. Brigid’s, and for our efforts we were just honored with the Lucy G. Moses Award for Preservation. Our building is about the same size as St. Brigid’s — of course the scale of the projects is different and the church’s structural challenges daunting, still not so different I suspect? St. Brigid, forgive me if I am suspicious about how $10 million is going to be spent on your house, but as you surely know…the Devil is always in the details. 

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