Volume 74, Number 20 | September 22 - 28 , 2004

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

St. Brigid parishioners sang on the steps of the historic church last Sunday.

St. Brigid faithful pray church can remain

By Albert Amateau

A week after Father Michael Conway served the last Sunday Mass of St. Brigid’s parish and a month after Bishop Robert Brucato, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, told worshipers that the parish would be dissolved, a group of parishioners gathered on the steps of the 156-year-old church on Sept. 19 and pledged to continue efforts to save the building and their parish.

They sang Catholic anthems in Spanish, solicited signatures on petitions to Cardinal Egan and to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, and talked about the loss of their spiritual home.

“I came to Mass every morning. It’s what kept me alive for seven months after my husband passed,” said Carin Torres, a resident of E. 10th St., whose husband, Rafael Torres, a science teacher at P.S. 19, died in February.

“I’ve been coming here for 40 years,” said Maria Tornin. “We’ve welcomed everyone, homeless people from the park, everyone. We need help to keep the church going,” she added.

Mary Ann Hart-Toomey, a neighborhood resident for 25 years, remembers St. Brigid as the church where she married her Irish-born late husband. She said closing the parish was especially mean to Hispanic parishioners. “First, they lost their community gardens and now they’ve lost their church,” said Hart-Toomey.

The venerable church building at 119 Avenue B across from Tompkins Sq. Park was built in 1848 by Irish boatwrights who worked in East River boatyards. Patrick Keely, an Irish-born architect who designed Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Albany, designed the gothic-style church.

But the deteriorating building developed a crack in the east wall, which had to be buttressed in 1991 and became so bad that by June 2001 after a visit by Cardinal Egan, it was declared unsafe and Masses had to be served in the school building at the corner of Avenue B and E. Seventh St.

After a diocesan estimate that a restoration of the building would cost $580,000, parishioners tried to raise the money themselves. “We raised $103,000,” said Peter Cruz, who grew up in the neighborhood and lives now on Long Island but returns to St. Brigid with his wife for Sunday Mass. “For a poor parish like this, $100,000 is like a million in a suburban parish,” Cruz said.

However, Father Conway, the Trinitarian priest whose order had been staffing the parish with clergy for the past eight years, did not put those funds in a dedicated capital fund but deposited them in the parish account, which pays for general expenses. “There is about $70,000 left, and we’re still trying to figure it all out. We have two boxes of paperwork to go through,” said Cruz.

Conway left the parish on Sept. 15 and has been reassigned to India.

Edwin Torres, a neighborhood resident and lifelong parishioner of St. Brigid, said that he found contractors who would restore St. Brigid for $288,000 using the same plans on which the diocese’s engineering consultants based their estimate. “We could still do it,” Torres said.

The condition of the church building, some of whose stained glass windows were gifts of the faithful in the 19th century, had been deteriorating for years. It the mid-1960s, the two original gothic-style stone spires were taken down, said Edwin Torres.

The deteriorated building, a decline in the number of Catholics in the changing neighborhood and a decision by the Order of Trinitarians not to assign its priest to St. Brigid’s parish were factors in the decision to close the parish, according to Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the archdiocese. The parish school, however, continues for this year, at least, as a diocesan school with lay teachers and administrators, Zwilling said.

A year ago, the Department of Buildings issued a permit to convert the vacant church into a five-story residence. The archdiocese said the converted property might serve as a new home for Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation located in a rented building on E. Fifth St. and Avenue B.

The building permit was subsequently renewed but Zwilling said that no decision has been made yet on whether the property will be used for the Cabrini Center or for any other purpose.

Zwilling said the closing of the parish was decided in the context of a general reassessment of all the parishes in the New York Archdiocese begun more than a year ago by Bishop Timothy McDonald. The reassessment was delayed because McDonald was appointed head of the Springfield, Mass., dioceses last year, but is back on track, said Zwilling.

The reassessment could result in the closing of other parishes in the archdiocese and the establishment of new ones, Zwilling said.

Because St. Brigid closed rather than merged with another parish, worshippers had to find other churches in the neighborhood on their own. Mary Help of Christians on E. 12th St. at First Ave. is one possibility. Also nearby are St. Emeric’s Church on E. 13th St. at Avenue C and Most Holy Redeemer on E. Third St. near Avenue A.

“We went to Most Holy Redeemer and they were very welcoming. But we still felt a little strange,” said Cruz, who still has hopes of saving the parish and the church building. A petition with 800 signatures calling for the restoration of the parish and the church will be forwarded to Cardinal Egan, and a similar petition is going to the Landmarks Preservation Commission calling for landmark designation for the building. The New York State Register of Historic Places has declared the building eligible for listing on the register.

Father Pat Moloney, a Catholic priest of the Melkite Eastern Rite who runs Lazarus House, a drop-in center on E. Ninth St. for illegal aliens, homeless youth and just about anyone else, told the gathering last Sunday to keep faith and forgive those who have taken their parish away. However, he said the archdiocese was insensitive because it did not send someone to introduce St. Brigid parishioners to other parishes in the neighborhood. “The good shepherd looks after his sheep,” he said, adding, “Not to have done that is unacceptable.”

Father Moloney, however, said he agreed that the archdiocese had no choice but to close the parish.

Nevertheless, Rosie Mendez, Democratic district leader who has often attended Mass at St. Brigid, said she intends to join the effort to save the parish and the church building.

“We have a vibrant and strong congregation,” Mendez said. “The church inside is full of history and beauty and we have a good case for landmarking. And most important, the parishioners are not going to give up,” she said.

Roland Legiardi-Laura, a neighbor, said the new East Village Community Coalition, which has been fighting to landmark the former CHARAS/El Bohio school building on E. Ninth St., may champion the cause of landmarking the church.

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