Letter to Pope Francis details bathroom woes at New York cathedral

One New Yorker is taking his appeal for restrooms in St. Patrick's Cathedral to a higher authority.

Ignored by the New York Health Department and the New York archdiocese, Brooklyn resident David Johnson penned a June 14 letter to Pope Francis to make his case for public facilities at the Fifth Avenue landmark.

John said the issue deserves the pope's attention because it shows a divide between the laity and clergy of the church. Above all, for Johnson, it's a sign that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan is out of touch with issues that affect his parishioners.

In May, Johnson brought his neighbor, Wei Li, 57, to St. Patrick's for a Mass to celebrate the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. During the Mass, Li, who recently suffered a stroke, had a near "bathroom emergency."

Instead of accommodating Li, who turned to Catholicism as his health deteriorated, the ushers at St. Patrick's did what they do when anyone requests a bathroom break at the cathedral: sent him across the street.

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In Johnson and Li's scramble to the public lavatory across Fifth Avenue, the pair missed Communion and had their seats taken at the crowded Mass. The whole trip took about 20 minutes. More importantly, Johnson writes in his letter, it "destroyed our worship state of mind."

Disillusioned, Johnson phoned St. Patrick's the next day to complain about the policy. Adding insult to injury, the rectory at St. Patrick's told Johnson the church does in fact have a bathroom -- but only clergy can use it.

In his letter to Francis, Johnson writes of this double standard.

He writes: "The fact that the Cathedral has millions of dollars on hand and will not install easy accessible bathrooms for the faithful is, to me, coldhearted. The clergy has access to bathrooms but not the worshippers."

For Johnson, the blame rests squarely on Dolan, who is currently overseeing a $175 million restoration of the historic cathedral.

"Cardinal Dolan should be ashamed of himself to invite people to attend worship at his church and not tell them ahead of time that their bathrooms are off limits to us," Johnson writes.

In a recent interview with NCR, Johnson said because of Dolan's lack of compassion, he will not be donating to this year's cardinal's appeal.

"Not until they get some bathrooms in there," Johnson said. "If they pass a plate around at Mass, I'll put some money in there. But not the cardinal's appeal. It's ridiculous. I've been to small storefront, Pentecostal churches and they have bathrooms. They might be leaky; but they got 'em."

To end his letter, Johnson calls on Francis to review Dolan's work as New York archbishop.

"This situation is so bizarre and unreal that it requires an urgent review of Cardinal Dolan's concern for his flock here in NYC," Johnson writes. "This lack of consideration shows me Cardinal Dolan is a hypocrite."

Will public bathrooms come to the largest Catholic church in North America? The ball is in the archdiocese's court. Until then, at least one Catholic New Yorker will be worshipping someplace else.

[Ben Feuerherd is a freelance writer in New York.]

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