Secret Angel Still Wants to Save St. Brigid's

Categories: In the Streets
In other East Village demolition news, though the wrecking ball has been stayed—for now—at St. Brigid's, fans and former parishioners are still fuming that the Archdiocese turned down offers by an anonymous "angel" to either repair or buy the Avenue B church in order to save it.

An attorney for the donor, Gary Kravetz, said his client was “absolutely still interested” in preserving the so-called Famine Church--even though its 158-year-old stained glass has been shattered, its organ dismantled, and the gothic reredos (altar screen)--hand-carved by church architect Patrick Keely himself—appears to have been hacked off.

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Inside St. Brigid's, before the demolition work began (Photo: Carolyn Ratcliff)

Kravetz said his client first offered to donate a large sum to fix that big crack that opened up on the north wall. When that was rejected, the donor offered to buy the church outright and turn it into cultural/educational center.

Kravetz forwarded along this statement issued on behalf of his client back in June:

"My client believes that St. Brigid's Church is an extremely important piece of New York, American, and Catholic history. He hopes that his resources can be of use in preserving it as a testament to the faith of impoverished immigrants escaping both famine and restrictions on their religion. He respectfully asks that decision makers at the archdiocese engage with him to see if a winning outcome is possible for the archdiocese, the neighborhood of St. Brigid's, and for historic preservation."

Though the cultural center concept was never fleshed out, presumably it could have celebrated both Irish Americans and the many other immigrant groups who found sanctuary there (St. Brigid's was reportedly the first church in the U.S. to have a Ukrainian mass, for instance).

Officials at the Archdiocese say the only written offer they received was to buy the church, and they don't want to sell.

"Our reason for being is not to create monuments," said spokesperson Joseph Zwilling. "If all we cared about is money, we would have sold it to this person who was offering to pay market value for it. That would have kept the preservationist crowd happy. But that's not what we're interested in. We're interested in serving the needs of the apeople consistent with the Catholic mission and the purposes of the Archdiocese of New York.”

So, they're tearing it down to serve the people? On the street, former parishioners, who for three years raised money at flea markets and bake sales in hopes of saving the building, weren't buying that logic. "It's a cash cow," said Carolyn Ratcliff, pointing to a proposal still under consideration to lease the property to Cabrini to build a senior nursing home. "It's a way of parking their asset. They give Cabrini a 99-year lease to run it with all these services, while the property continues to accrue in value, tax-free," Ratcliff contended.

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A flyer posted on the fence surrounding the now boarded-up St. Brigid's on Avenue B (Photo: Sarah Ferguson)

Cabrini didn't get back to us, but in a follow-up interview, Zwilling said the Cabrini option was in fact “far from a done deal.”

So what does the Archdiocese plan to do with the property, then?

Zwilling says that's still undetermined. He noted that the decision to demolish St. Brigid's coincides with a sweeping "realignment" of church properties--which could result in the shuttering of several other downtown churches, including Mary Help of Christians on East 12th Street and the Church of the Nativity on Second Avenue.

“We are having a series of meetings to consider the entire realignment of the Archdiocese,” Zwilling explained. “When that's completed, we'll decide how best to use the properties to meet whatever needs are established.”

Zwilling said “it's possible” that some churches under realignment may ultimately be sold. But not St. Brigid's. "Cardinal Egan has already decided it won't ever be sold. It will be used for some church purpose," Zwilling insisted. "We just have not decided what that's going to be."

Zwilling also said he "can't explain" why in March 2004 the Archdiocese secured a permit to gut the existing church building and convert it into 29 apartments. "It's still a mystery to me, because housing has never been our intention there," said Zwilling. He said he "assumes" it was filed with the aim of creating senior housing, similar to that plan to convert St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem that got shot down. But such housing was never "authorized" for St. Brigid's, Zwilling maintained.

Okay, but the idea that somebody in the Archdiocese apparently found at least the shell of St. Brigid's worth saving is, needless to say, intriguing.

Meanwhile, in a post to Power Plays, St. Brigid's former pastor Father Michael Conway said he never consented to the demolition. Here's his comment in full:

Mr. Zwilling's recollection of the discussions surrounding the decision in 2001 to cease using St. Brigid's church are quite different from mine.

I did agree with the Cardinal that for the sake of the safety of the parishioners we should stop using the building. I did not agree that the only option was that the building should be torn down. We subsequently explored many options until the archdiocese made the decision in 2004 that Mass would no longer be offered at St Brigid because of the clergy shortage and the availability of other area Catholic churches.

Just to set the record straight.

Posted by: Michael Conway at July 31, 2006 02:44 AM

Former parishioners will be holding another candlelight vigil for St. Brigid's tonight at 8 p.m., corner of Avenue B and 8th Street.


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