Volume 74, Number 8 | June 23 - 29, 2004



Chorus of cries for director’sreturn at center

By Albert Amateau

Caring Community, the community-based agency providing services to seniors in the Village and Lower Manhattan for 31 years, has been at odds since the end of last month with a group of seniors angry at the summary dismissal of their music director.

The issue came to a climax, but no resolution on Monday night June 21 when seniors who attend the agency’s center at First Presbyterian Church in the Village met with a group of Caring Community board members at the main office at 20 Washington Sq. North.

The seniors, led by Joseph Sibilla, demanded that the board rehire Christine Conroy, who was fired on May 28 as music director of the center at First Presbyterian. Instead, Sibilla asked the board to fire Lester C. Bates, executive director of Caring Community, who dismissed Conroy.

Eleanor Korman, president of the Caring Community board of trustees and former dean of New York University’s School of Social Work, told the group that the board would not rehire Conroy and wouldn’t think of firing Bates.

“We’re not allowed to comment on the reasons for firing an employee under federal regulations,” Korman told The Villager on Tuesday in regard to Conroy’s dismissal. Korman noted that Bates, who became executive director in 2002 when Caring Community was running at a deficit, has raised $510,000 in private funds to supplement city funding. She said Bates is responsible for putting Caring Community’s finances in sound order.

Bates, who attended the Monday night meeting but did not speak, was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Conroy would only confirm that she was fired “on a minute’s notice” on May 28 and said she has been advised by her lawyer to say no more. Conroy became music director of the First Presbyterian Church senior center three years ago.

A music professional with performance and teaching experience, Conroy conducted music classes for seniors and organized Curtain Callers, a chorus that performs at Caring Community’s four centers — 20 Washington Sq. North, Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine and Bleecker Sts., Independence Plaza North at 310 Greenwich St. in Tribeca and at First Presbyterian at W. 12th St. and Fifth Ave.

Curtain Callers, with 40 members of which about 25 sing regularly, perform at other events — the last time was at City Hall at the invitation of City Councilmember Alan Jay Gerson on May 27, the day before she was fired.

Since her dismissal, Curtain Callers has not held a practice sessions and Caring Community’s First Presbyterian center has not had a music director. Korman, however, said the agency would replace Conroy with another professional musician. Conroy had also been serving for the past year as the site director at First Presbyterian and since she was fired, Paul O’Brien, a Caring Community staff member, has been in charge of the W. 12th St. center.

While neither Conroy nor Bates would talk about the dismissal, the cause goes back to the beginning of the year when Bates proposed to move the center at First Presbyterian to the basement of St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Ave. at Washington Pl. because city funding did not meet an expected rent increase at First Presbyterian.

Bates said at the time that the rent at St. Joseph’s would be lower and that the move would really be a return because the center had moved from St. Joseph’s to First Presbyterian four years earlier.

Seniors at the First Presbyterian Center protested the move and Conroy strongly supported their opposition to Bates’ proposal. But in May, First Presbyterian agreed not to increase rent and to allow the Caring Community Center another three years at the parish house on W. 12th St.

Nevertheless, the relation between Bates and Conroy did not mend.

“There has been such an atmosphere of distrust,” said Fred Frey, a member of the Senior Advisory Council of Caring Community’s First Presbyterian center. “Members were appalled at the way Christine was fired.” More than 100 seniors signed a petition calling for Conroy’s reinstatement,” Frey added.

Korman said on Tuesday that the board does not want to fight with the seniors served by Caring Community. “If we didn’t have seniors, we wouldn’t have a program. And if we didn’t have a staff and volunteers, the seniors wouldn’t have the services we provide,” she said, adding, “We need our reputation in the community and I’m very unhappy that a few people are smearing our name.”

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