Tears and Heartache for New York’s Catholics as Cardinal Shuts Churches!
There were gasps and tears at Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem. At Sacred Heart in Mount Vernon, congregants shared mournful embraces. And at Our Lady of Peace on the East Side, parishioners pledged a fight.Across the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a day of reckoning arrived on Sunday, as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announced how scores of parishes would be affected by the largest reorganization in the history of the archdiocese.
From Staten Island to the Catskills, there was anguish for congregations who learned that their churches would be effectively shuttered and relief among those whose parishes were spared. And at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in interviews, Cardinal Dolan, the executor of the changes, sought to explain what they would mean for the 368 parishes he oversees and the 2.8 million Catholics living in communities served by those churches.
“I can well understand the frustration, the anger, the confusion of our people, and I apologize for it, because I am the agent of it,” he said in an interview on Sunday afternoon. “But this is about the future, this is about strength and renewal, and we will get through this.” In all, 112 parishes will be “merged” into 55 new parishes, the archdiocese announced. In 31 of those new parishes, one of the churches will no longer be used for regular services, meaning those churches will be effectively closed by August 2015. In the remaining mergers, both churches in the combined parish will remain open, a decision that was met with hopeful cheers at some of those churches on Sunday. The savings from such consolidations will come primarily through shared administrative costs. The Brooklyn Diocese, which includes Queens, faced similar challenges and undertook a similar process, reducing its total number of parishes to 187 today from 199 in 2009. The reorganization announced on Sunday has been long in coming, reflecting demographic trends that have plagued Roman Catholic dioceses across much of the nation for decades. The number of priests has fallen each year, as retirements outpace ordinations. And church attendance has been declining; as of 2013, only about 12 percent of the New York archdiocese’s 2.8 million Catholics regularly attended Sunday Mass, according to the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, expenses continue to rise, for everything from utility bills to the upkeep of church buildings. Neighborhoods in Manhattan that were once teeming with Italian, Irish and other Catholic immigrants have been overtaken by office buildings and pied-a-terres for the wealthy, leaving those parishes with fewer faithful, while some churches north of the city are bursting at the seams. Of the churches that will essentially be closed for regular worship, nine are in Manhattan. Six are in Westchester, six in the Bronx, four on Staten Island and six in Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, or Dutchess Counties.The parish mergers will not affect Catholic schools, which were broken off from the parishes over the last several years and are managed by regional boards. East Harlem, which has been home to successive waves of Catholic immigrants for generations, was among the most impacted neighborhoods, with three of its seven Catholic churches slated for effective closure. A gasp came from the pews at the Church of the Holy Rosary on East 119th Street on Sunday morning when a lay leader, Dominick DiCerto, informed his fellow worshipers at the end of Mass that the church had lost its fight to remain an independent parish. A woman wiped tears from her eyes in the back row.
“I feel very sad, I was baptized here,” said one parishioner, Sonia Cintron, 75, who added: “Here we’re family, we loved each other.” “We have to pray,” said Haydee Feliciano, 71, a parishioner at the Church of the Holy Agony, an East Harlem church on East 101st Street that in the 1950s, was built by donations from Puerto Ricans. “There can always be a miracle, only God knows.” In Mount Vernon in Westchester, three of the six parish churches will essentially close. Before more than 100 congregants at the Church of Saint Ursula, the Rev. Robert J. Verrigni read the news from a letter from Cardinal Dolan’. “This will be a trying and testing time for you,” Father Verrigni said. Some parishioners groaned, while others sighed, bit their knuckles, and touched palms to their foreheads. “It’s like mourning the death of the parish,” Father Verrigni said.
A list of churches in the region that will merge. The parish listed on the left and the parish on the right will merge. Masses and other sacraments will cease to be celebrated on a regular basis at the church in the right column. The merger is expected to take effect by August 2015.
In his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Dolan, draped in purple and gold vestments for All Souls’ Day, asked for prayers for those hearing that their beloved parishes “will no longer be the address where they go on Sundays.” Meanwhile, parishioners in some affected parishes have already begun mobilizing, and legal action and additional protests are expected as the decisions take effect.
At the Church of Our Lady of Peace on East 62nd Street in Manhattan, parishioners had collected more than 3,000 petition signatures, circulated about 300 letters of protest and started a Facebook page and blog. “We think the cardinal got it wrong this time,” Robert J. Corti, the head of a steering committee of parishioners, said to the congregation on Sunday. He told them that the decision had come as a shock, given that Our Lady of Peace is financially self-sustaining, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a robust congregation. The archdiocese did not announce what will happen to church buildings that will no longer be used regularly. In the interview, Cardinal Dolan said some churches might be sold, but that such sales were likely years away. Any eventual proceeds, he said, would likely be shared between the parish and the archdiocese, to create endowments for things like church upkeep to educational programs.
Similar reorganizations have taken place in many Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation, as church leaders grapple with how to staff and maintain networks of churches that were designed decades ago for larger populations of churchgoing Catholics. In New York, some 42 parishes have been consolidated since the mid-1960s, but Cardinal Dolan said he had become convinced that a greater effort was needed to reduce the $40 million a year spent supporting unneeded parishes. Some churches that had been recommended for mergers by an advisory panel earlier this year were spared, at least for now. Among them are the Church of the Holy Innocents in Midtown Manhattan, the only church in New York where Latin Mass is celebrated daily, and St. John the Baptist Church in the Rockland County village of Piermont.
When the Rev. George Torok, the pastor of St. John the Baptist, announced at Mass that the church would stay open, one parishioner shouted, “Yes!” And for some in the 24 archdiocesan churches who learned that their church would remain open despite a merger, there was also a sense of relief. Not far from the bridge onto City Island, 100 members of Saint Mary Star of the Sea filled the pews Sunday. They had been concerned a closure of the only Catholic church on City Island would prevent elderly congregants from attending Mass. Jackie Kyle Kall, 89, the first woman to arrive at Mass, had already heard the good news. “The church is saved!” she said to a fellow parishioner, as she pushed open the church’s doors against the wind whipping off the water.