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On a warm and sultry summer night, a couple dozen worshippers gathered recently at the Church of the Nativity in New York City’s East Village for a mass celebrating the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement dedicated to helping the poor.
The church, housed in a simple, cinder block and brick building, has none of the usual gleaming gold and majesty one would often expect from a Catholic house of worship.
But the celebration was bittersweet. On Aug. 1, Nativity will be “merged” with another parish, Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, effectively shutting it down for good, leaving the immigrants, working families, young professionals, poor and homeless who pray there without their spiritual home.
Mildred Guy has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years, and worshipped at Nativity for 35. Her son was an altar server there, and graduated from the now closed Nativity Mission School. She lost her home in March when a deadly gas explosion levelled four East Village buildings, and now she’s losing her church. “It’s not the prettiest church. But it’s very comforting, it’s very homely”, she said. “When you come here you feel like you’re in a second home, at least for me. So to lose this church, it’s a big hurt.”
The church has built a reputation for embracing everyone. Claudia Marte, one of the parishioners fighting to keep the parish open, said the neighborhood needs Nativity. “We have a very diverse community,” she said. “We have a lot of homeless in the community, and we get together after mass sometimes and we invite them to join us. Some of them actually sleep in front of the church and we have become friends with some of them and we ask them to join us. They’re part of our community.”
Nor is Nativity alone. A reorganization plan dubbed “Making All Things New” is being rolled out that will merge 112 parishes in the Archdiocese of New York, the second largest in the country, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island in New York City, as well as seven upstate counties. Around 55 of those churches will effectively close.
‘We have a very diverse community. We have a lot of homeless in the community, and we get together after mass sometimes and we invite them to join us. Some of them actually sleep in front of the church and we have become friends with some of them and we ask them to join us.’
resident, East Village
About a hundred blocks north of Nativity, in another poor, mostly Hispanic, neighborhood The Church of the Holy Agony is also set to close. It ministers to much of East Harlem’s Catholic, mainly Puerto Rican, community.
Anna, who declined to give her surname due to the sensitivity of the issue, has been a parishioner there for 13 years. She’s at the church, not only on Sundays, but every weekday, running, with near-military precision, a kind of giant garage sale. Second-hand goods, from furniture sets and clothing to appliances and old VHS tapes fill Holy Agony’s social center and spill onto the streets, donated items designed to put a few extra dollars into the church’s coffers. Anna is hurt and confused by the closure, especially since the church is packed every Sunday. “This church is open for all people,” she said. “Now it’s closing, and I’m so sad. I know a lot of people who were married here, baptized their children here, had all the sacraments here. I love my church, but what can I do? We tried to save it. I don’t know why it’s closing. They don’t give us a reason.”
Nativity and Holy Agony have similar histories: built in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s to serve immigrant or non-English-speaking communities with money raised by their congregations, not from New York’s Archdiocese. Both minister to their parishioners through outreach programs.
Though Nativity has seen its numbers dwindle as the East Village gentrifies, Holy Agony’s pews are filled for every Sunday Mass. Most baffling: Both churches are financially solvent, paying their own way and holding little or no debt.
The Roman Catholic Church is governed by canon laws that dictate the steps necessary to close a parish. It also features a sophisticated legal system to set, uphold and arbitrate these laws. Sister Kate Kuenstler is one of the premier canon lawyers in the country. She represents eight of the churches set to be closed as they bring their fight to the Vatican.
She says there is a lot of anger and suspicion pointed toward the Archdiocese of New York leader Cardinal Timothy Dolan. She says the process used to decide which churches would close and which would survive, and the secrecy surrounding that process, has parishioners feeling more than a little deceived. “He created chaos in the process, and confusion,” she said.
According to canon law, before he can order the closing of a church, the Cardinal is required to send a decree, not only announcing the closure, but stating, clearly, the reasons for the closure. Individual parishes then have 10 days to petition the Cardinal to rescind the decree. Then, they can send another petition, or recourse, directly to the Vatican.
When Dolan filed the decrees in November last year, he had pastors read out the letters at Sunday Mass. When panicked parishioners asked to see the decrees, the Archdiocese refused. It took weeks before the Cardinal acquiesced, allowing one person at a time to visit the Chancery to view the documents. Even then, they weren’t allowed to take notes or photographs, and were only given a limited amount of time to read the decrees. “These are lay people, trying to understand complicated documents in a short time,” Sister Kate said. “It was impossible.” When she appealed to the Vatican, the decrees finally were released on the Archdiocese website. But that was in February, three months after the decrees were signed and well past the point when parishioners had the right to file for recourse, meaning the Vatican might never hear their cases. The failure to release the all-important decrees was described by the Cardinal’s spokesperson, Joseph Zwilling, as “an oversight.”
In the decree he issued announcing the closing of Nativity Church and several other churches, Cardinal Dolan cited, “radical changes and shifts in demographics”, “a decline in the number of available priests,” and the changing situation, which “puts a huge financial burden on smaller parishes” as some of the reasons for the closure. Sister Kate says these are not acceptable reasons for closing parishes under canon law.
Also arousing suspicion is a complicated and confusing, two-tiered church system. Many of the churches marked for closure, are “personal parishes”, built to serve particular communities, mostly immigrant communities. In some cases, priests were brought over from their homelands, men familiar with their cultures, fluent in their native tongues. Often built with contributions from the people they serve, these parishes pay only a yearly stipend to the Archdiocese and are presided over by religious order priests, those who take strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and report first to their order, then to the Archbishop.
While most of these small, personal parishes take no money from the Archdiocese, they are nearly all financially sound, with many reporting budget surpluses. Yet they are being closed, their parishioners sent to larger, diocesan churches, many of which are heavily in debt, to the Archdiocese. Some fear the personal parishes are being closed so that their funds, along with any money made from the eventual sale of the church buildings, will be transferred to the struggling diocesan churches and used to pay down their debts.
Radical changes and shifts in demographics … a decline in the number of available priests … puts a huge financial burden on smaller parishes.
Cardinal, Archdiocese of New York
But personal parishes have no borders and welcome worshippers from far and wide. Diocesan, or territorial, churches have strict boundaries. Parishioners must live within those boundaries in order to register. That means, while the Cardinal’s plan stipulates which diocesan parish becomes the sole campus for the congregation, many will find themselves turned away because they live outside the boundaries.
That also means any plan the Archdiocese might have to move the assets of the closed churches to the designated church could violate canon law, which says the assets of a closed parish follow the parishioners. Our Lady of Peace’s congregants, for example, are being directed to attend St. John the Evangelist, located within the Archiocese’s chancery offices. But only a small percentage of the parishioners live within the St. John’s boundary, meaning only a small percentage of the assets can be moved to St. John’s. Any attempt by the Archdiocese to violate that tenet of canon law could become the best argument for keeping Our Lady of Peace open.
But there is a broader context of declining attendance. There is no doubt that there has been a steep decline, not in the number of Catholics in New York, but in the number of Catholics who regularly attend Mass. Only 12 percent of people who identify as Catholic actually sacrifice an hour of their Sunday morning for Mass, according to the Archdiocese. The number of priests is dropping, from 2,177 serving 2.24 million Catholics in New York City in 1991 to 1,343 serving 2.62 million in 2013, according to the official Catholic Directory.
For many of the churches, the fight goes on. The lawyers are taking their appeals for recourse to the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy and, if they are denied, on to the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican version of the Supreme Court. Though it’s likely the churches will close on Aug. 1, parishioners think they still have time, believing the Archdiocese is unlikely to “deconsecrate” the buildings, or return them to secular use, any time soon, as they would then have to pay property taxes. And they point to other churches, closed as far back as 2005, that still sit, vacant and padlocked, unchanged and unsold, as their parishioners battle to have them re-opened.
Sister Kate says there are only three ways this can end well from her perspective. The first, she says, is "the Cardinal would rescind his decrees and say, 'We need to start over.' Number two would be that the Vatican would uphold the recourse and force the Cardinal to leave everything alone. The third is, the mergers goes through, there’s one new merged parish, the merged parish with two campus sites, two church buildings, but both church buildings are used full time for the ministry of the people of both parishes.”
But the Cardinal shows no signs of rescinding the decrees. No one from the Archdiocese would respond to repeated requests for a statement, but Dolan recently wrote a celebratory article in the Archdiocese newspaper, Catholic New York, saying his plan will “reach an important goal on Aug. 1, when 140 of our parishes will be officially merged.”
For one church, the fight already appears to be over. At The Church of the Holy Agony, the signs asking for help have come down, and parishioners worry that elderly congregants won’t be able to attend the new designated church, St. Cecilia’s, because there is no handicapped access. And their longtime priest, the Rev. Victor Elia, once an outspoken opponent to the closing now would only say, “It’s not a good idea for me to talk about this anymore.”