Volume 74, Number 24 | Octuber 13 - 19 , 2004

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

After marching up from Avenue B, parishioners of St. Brigid’s passed Saks Fifth Ave., just south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where they rallied for two hours.

St. Brigid’s faithful make appeal to Cardinal Egan

By Albert Amateau

After a 2-mile hike uptown from the East Village chanting “Save St. Brigid’s” and “Que viva Santa Brigida,” a group of 60 worshipers walked a picket line for two hours last Sunday across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

They were hoping that Edward Cardinal Egan would come out and accept their petition to revive their parish, which was dissolved last month, and repair their 156-year-old church building closed nearly three years ago because of a crack in the east wall.

“We’re going to come back every Sunday until the cardinal talks to us,” Peter Cruz, a parish leader, said later after the parishioners had decided to call it a day at 1 p.m. on Oct. 10. They had been walking and chanting for four hours.

Cruz has been trying to get the cardinal’s attention ever since Bishop Robert Brucato, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, came down to Avenue B on Sept. 12 to tell worshipers the parish would be dissolved and that they would have to find spiritual homes at other churches in the neighborhood.

When the venerable church building at 119 Avenue B across from Tompkins Sq. Park was declared unsafe in the spring of 2001 and services were moved to the adjacent St. Brigid’s School, parishioners began raising funds to repair the building even though the archdiocese decided it couldn’t afford the estimated $580,000 reconstruction costs.

Although parishioners raised a total of $103,000 to reconstruct the church, Rev. Michael Conway, the Trinitarian priest who had served St. Brigid’s for eight years, deposited the money in the parish general funds instead of a designated capital building fund, and much of it went to meet general parish expenses over the past three years.

Father Conway left the parish on Sept. 19 and now there is no parish and no building fund, Cruz said. But he insisted that he has documents proving that parishioners gave the money specifically to rebuild the church designed in 1848 by Patrick Keely and built by Irish immigrant boatwrights who worked in the East River drydocks.

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, currently located in a rented building on E. Fifth St. and Avenue B.

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

However, St. Brigid’s parishioners and East Village preservationists believe the archdiocese will sell the historic church to residential developers.

“It’s hard to find a more gentrifying block than this one between Seventh and Eighth Sts. on Avenue B overlooking Tompkins Sq.,” said Henry Fiol, a resident of the neighborhood for 30 years who taught in St. Brigid’s parochial school in the 1970s.

“The church needs money to pay off claims against pedophile priests,” Fiol said. “The building permit has been renewed so we think the sale is a done deal.”

Fiol and his wife Nilsa have a special connection with St. Brigid’s. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1975 but when Cardinal O’Connor came to St. Brigid’s for a confirmation Sunday about 10 years ago he married them in the church.

Roland Legiardi-Laura, a founding member of the East Village Community Coalition who joined the march to St. Patrick’s last Sunday, said, “If the church can’t care for this building they should give it to the community and let us take care of it.”

The coalition was organized to preserve the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St., which formerly served as CHARAS/El Bohio, a community arts center now being eyed for conversion into a large student dormitory. Legiardi-Laura said the coalition is joining the neighborhood effort to save St. Brigid’s.

Carolyn Ratcliffe, a resident of the neighborhood for 20 years, has been a leader in the effort to save the church and was a regular at St. Brigid’s Sunday services. “I’m Episcopalian and the services are almost the same. Besides, it’s a beautiful church and the people are very nice,” she said. “Patrick Keely, who designed St. Brigid’s, submitted a design for the Catholic cathedral in Natchez, Miss., where I come from. But they chose a different architect,” she added.

Rosie Mendez, Democratic district co-leader, said that a petition to designate St. Brigid’s as a city landmark had more than 500 signatures as of Oct. 10. “We’ve sent it to Robert Tierney at the Landmarks Preservation Commission and to Cardinal Egan,” said Mendez.

Speaking for the archdiocese last month, Zwilling said the dangerous condition of the church building, a decline in the number of Catholics in the changing neighborhood and a decision by the Order of Trinitarians not to assign its priests to the St. Brigid’s parish any longer were factors in the decision to close the parish. The parish school, however, continues for this year, at least, as a diocesan school with lay teachers and administrators, Zwilling said.

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