Opponents challenge parish closings, mergers in NY archdiocese

A small group of protesters praying the Rosary outside of Nativity church, Second Avenue on the Lower East Side in New York. The church officially closed Aug. 1. (Mercedes Gallese)
A small group of protesters praying the Rosary outside of Nativity church, Second Avenue on the Lower East Side in New York. The church officially closed Aug. 1. (Mercedes Gallese)

by Peter Feuerherd

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Cardinal Timothy Dolan, appointed to lead the New York archdiocese six years ago, didn't need his doctorate in U.S. Catholic history to realize he was made chief steward of a grand legacy.

There was the massive St. Patrick's Cathedral, ornate churches scattered around Manhattan and throughout the archdiocese, and small churches, barely noticeable, tucked away amidst apartments and office buildings, whose history dates to ethnic groups who have long moved on.

Impressive, yes, but not always helpful for the modern era. Over the past year, Dolan has unleashed a series of parish consolidations, closings and mergers, affecting a sizeable chunk of the archdiocese's 368 parishes. After a listening process titled "Making All Things New," the results landed towards the end of this summer as 112 parishes involved in that process were merged into 55, with 31 churches shuttered permanently.

Related: Studies show shift in numbers, geography of parishes

The goal is a financially stable, revitalized church better able to evangelize a secularized culture, in an archdiocese where only about 12 percent of some 2.8 million Catholics can be found at Sunday Mass. It's been on Dolan's mind for a while.

"Now energy should be unleashed because we're not suffocated by the maintenance of museums," Dolan told John Allen of the Boston Globe's CRUX website last year. He also told Allen, in a book published in 2011 titled A People of Hope, that "American Catholic leadership is being strangled by trying to maintain the behemoth of institutional Catholicism that we inherited in the 1940s and 1950s."

"We are exhausted by maintenance and we've forgotten the mission, not to mention the mystery and the message. As important as structures are, few people are going to surrender their lives to a structure."

Dolan expected pushback, and he's got it.

"I can well understand the anger, the confusion of our people, and I apologize for it, because I am the agent of it," Dolan acknowledged to the New York Times last year.

Dolan has not spoken recently on the topic with energy focused on Pope Francis' planned visit to Gotham Friday. The usually loquacious cardinal is letting the record stand as it is, at least for now.

Supporters argue the moves are long overdue.

New Yorkers may pride themselves on being on the cutting edge, but in church circles it is well known that the massive New York archdiocese, spread over three city boroughs as well as seven suburban and rural upstate counties, takes its time.

While older Northeastern and Midwestern dioceses and archdioceses such as Detroit, Boston, Cleveland and Camden, N.J., have addressed the warning signs of too many buildings servicing too few churchgoing Catholics, Cardinals John J. O'Connor and Edward Egan, Dolan's predecessors, were more cautious, only occasionally closing down facilities, sometimes contentiously.

Egan, while meeting with a pastor called to discuss his parish closing, arranged to have the church padlocked. Parishioners in East Harlem regularly protested closings there. Consolidations were done in piecemeal fashion.

Dolan has changed that. For better or worse, the ambitious plan is sure to be his legacy on the local stage.

Hope against hope

It's Sunday morning, late August, outside Nativity Church, Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, blocks from where Dorothy Day, its most famous parishioner, opened the Catholic Worker to feed and clothe the Depression unemployed. It's the neighborhood famous for the American first-stop of the Irish, Italians, Jews, and later, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Chinese.

The Rosary is recited in Spanish by a man and three women outside the church. Nearby sits John Bivona, a street musician who makes the rectory steps one of his homes. The rectory, abandoned years ago, and the church, which officially closed Aug. 1, are padlocked. Joggers make their morning rounds jostling for space with groups of 20- and 30-somethings headed to morning brunch in the neighborhood bistros. The Rosary reciters are politely ignored.

Their prayers are for a hope-against-hope that the Dolan might rescind his decision to close Nativity, a stark modernist structure which looks more like a small office building than the classic church, Most Holy Redeemer, a few blocks east, where Nativity parishioners are urged by the archdiocese to attend Mass.

"There is no reason for the closure," declares Mercedes Sanchez, 32, who grew up in the parish where she, as a girl, heard stories about Day, the famous elderly lady who prayed there. A poised, public relations professional, Sanchez is one of the estimated 300 former parishioners, many of whom want Nativity to remain open as it was. But that is a dream that may require more Hail Marys than could ever be recited on the sidewalk.

Sanchez says the finances at Nativity were stable and that if there is a huge parish debt it belongs to Holy Redeemer.** Suspicion lingers, as it does throughout the archdiocese, that parishioners are being directed to take their money to bigger parishes to relieve large debts owed to the archdiocese. There is also the issue of real estate: The Nativity parish properties could be a boon to a developer anxious to house the joggers and the bistro brunchers.

Sanchez is pushing an alternative plan*. Building on Day's legacy, whose sainthood cause is supported by the archdiocese, some former Nativity parishioners are proposing to use the rectory as a chapel, retreat space and a place for services to be provided to the homeless, such as showers and a mail drop, with the center named for Day. They are awaiting an archdiocesan response.

They have the support of Martha Hennessy, Day's granddaughter, who ministers to the poor at the Catholic Worker.

"Having a shrine to Dorothy would remind us of her work and help keep her presence with us," says Hennessy, who notes that while the neighborhood is far wealthier than it used to be, the homeless and the hungry remain.

Sanchez, a native New Yorker of Dominican heritage, sees the possibilities. She knows the pressure felt throughout the city as its wide gap between rich and poor becomes more visible. The New York Daily News and the New York Post tabloids -- which frequently set the agenda on local issues -- regularly chronicle horror stories of the homeless taking over city landmarks, from open bathing in a Columbus Circle fountain to public urination at a park near City Hall. The archdiocese closed the nearby Holy Name Shelter near the Bowery a few years ago, converting the building into a theatre and residence for campus ministers.

A neighborhood divided

Nowhere is the stark rich/poor divide more apparent than on the Lower East Side. Its reputation for seediness and down-and-out-living, made famous by the car window washers who used to patrol the Bowery, has come a long way from Day's time. It is an uneasy juxtaposition: on one street, next to the headquarters of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, is a Starbucks, where some club members take their morning joe before riding off, breaking the Sunday morning quiet.

Cardboard street residences exist adjacent to gleaming new apartment towers.

The children and grandchildren of those who fled the neighborhood for the suburbs, as well as out-of-towners, now flock there. One gleaming tower on Ludlow Street advertises a $3,300 monthly rent for a studio apartment, a euphemism for a bedroom, kitchen and closet-size bath. One-bedrooms go for north of $4,000.

In the decrees explaining the parish consolidation, the archdiocese notes "changing demographics." In the 1960s, that meant older Catholic immigrant families staking a claim in the suburbs. On the Lower East Side, that is now code for young professionals, many from Catholic backgrounds, who have made the neighborhood their home.

While they may come from Catholic homes, they are rarely found at Catholic Mass. The archdiocese estimate of only 12 percent of Catholics attending Mass on any given Sunday is probably even lower on the Lower East Side. It is a percentage creeping close to post-Christian European levels. Holy Redeemer, on this late Sunday in August, had only some 70 attending a mostly empty church for its morning English Mass. The later Spanish Mass did much better, attracting nearly 300, but still the church remains more than half empty, even after the merger.

Efforts to evangelize the city's newcomers remains an archdiocesan priority. Nativity, before its closing, featured a Sunday evening Mass for this hard-to-schedule demographic.

For Bivona, the closing of Nativity breaks up the vibe of old New York in favor of new wealth.

"There's a spiritual connection," he says about the church, which he put into the context of a neighborhood that produced music from Bob Dylan to the Ramones. He resides on the Nativity rectory steps, he says, because while he can bring in a few hundred a day from his street performances, he has no chance of paying neighborhood rents. He relies on the network of churches and shelters in the neighborhood, which once included Nativity, for survival.

While Bivona sees his local church as connected in a deep spiritual way to the music gods, some see salvation in that most arcane slice of church life, its canon law.

Closures and mergers

Enter Sr. Kate Kuenstler, a Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ, who, from Pawtucket, R.I., is schooling opponents of the archdiocese in the intricacies of church law.

A canon lawyer, she sees flaws in the archdiocese's case. A gadfly to bishops who want to consolidate their dioceses, she consulted with parishioners in Cleveland who had decisions to close parishes overturned by Vatican intervention.

She's found the archdiocesan decrees to close and merge parishes were tardily done and written in the same language, asserting a need to consolidate because of changing demographics and decline in the number of priests. The decrees also cite widespread consultation with 368 parishes divided into 75 clusters, as well as declines in finances and Mass attendance.

The decrees cite a shift of population.

"It's an old argument," says Kuenstler, who notes that New York City has been gaining population in recent decades, while close suburbs have stabilized and outer suburbs continue to expand.

"How can 125 parishes have exactly the same problems and the same issues?" she asks. The result is scores of challenges to the decrees taken up by disgruntled parishioners.

The similar language of the decrees is not unusual, says Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese. The consultation process focused on a single question: "How can we meet the needs of God's people as they exist today and into the future, not what the needs may have been 50, 100 or 125 years ago?" The answer to that question cut across parish boundary lines.

The pressure to keep some parishes open has worked in some cases. St. Thomas More Church on Manhattan's Upper East Side, located in a high-income zip code and whose cause was promoted by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, convinced the archdiocese that it should remain open, even though it is only blocks from the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius Church, where it was slated to merge.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, also on the Upper East Side, was not so lucky. It has merged with nearby St. Monica's.

Kalman Chany, a lifetime parishioner of St. Elizabeth, has filed a grievance to the Vatican with the help of Kuenstler.

Once a Slovak parish, St. Elizabeth has few ethnic vestiges remaining. Yet it deserves to remain open, says Chany, because of its outreach to the deaf and the eventual completion of a Second Avenue subway line which, while now an ongoing construction headache, is expected to encourage growth.

"There will be an influx of Catholics into the area," says Chany, pushing for the salvation of his old parish.

Chany, like other opponents of the plan, see unspoken financial motives on the part of the archdiocese. "The feeling was that this was done to pay off the debts of St. Moncia's," he says.

The plan doesn't spare the suburbs, either.

James Maver, a former parishioner at Holy Trinity in Mamaroneck in Westchester County, has formally petitioned Rome to keep the parish open. It was merged with St. Vito's, also in Mamaroneck.

Maver, a civil attorney, says "the whole process was flawed." The parish had suffered a decline in attendance and finances, but he attributed that to lackluster pastoral leadership, which failed to address a growing Latino presence in the area.

The decree to shutter Holy Trinity noted demographic shifts. But, argues Mavers, "we are the suburbs. This is where the Catholics moved to."

There is little sign that the archdiocese will budge off its decrees.

As Dolan told CRUX's Allen, "we would like to think that there will be no apology, that the Holy See would say that our bias is to trust the local bishop."

Still that trust is a hard sell for any bishop. Perhaps the visit of the popular Pope Francis will galvanize a new evangelization among young adults and others. At least some of the faithful 12 percent Massgoers in the archdiocese have been alienated by the consolidation, but archdiocesan planners are banking they will move on to their new parishes. Sanchez, for one, says she is willing to get involved in her new parish despite her disappointment with the closing of Nativity. Many of the Rosary prayers outside the shuttered church process regularly to their new parish for Sunday Mass.

The slice of John's Gospel for the August Sunday morning involved Jesus dealing with an unruly crowd angered by his teachings.

Peter the Apostle is said to stand firm, despite the misgivings of the crowd.

"To whom shall we go?" he asks Jesus.

For those upset by the cardinal's master plan, that remains the question to ponder.

[Regular Catholic press contributor Peter Feuerherd writes from Queens, N.Y.]

*This paragraph was corrected. The group's plan is for the church rectory.
**This sentence was changed to better reflect Sanchez's understanding of the parish finances.

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