By Brody Hale
Furthermore, in this same pastoral letter, the Cardinal states that the proceeds from the sales of this “unused” property will serve as the source of funds for the creation of “endowments” to fund everything from “Catholic Schools” and “Religious Education,” to “The Sheen Center,” the “Gianna Center for Women’s Health,” and “FOCUS,” an apostolate aimed at university students. The Cardinal should be reminded that in any situation where parishes are merged, the “goods and obligations,” (i.e. buildings, bank accounts, and debts where they exist,) are to be transferred to the parish into which the former parish is merged. Are the parishes of the archdiocese, either individually or collectively going to take on the management of the projects the Cardinal mentioned? I ask this question, in light of the statement from Cardinal Dolan that funds from the sale of “unused” property will be used for all of the above stated purposes. The Archdiocese of New York should not be receiving any funds in excess of whatever parishes may directly owe the archdiocese at the time of their closure, and even in these cases, such deficits do not constitute legitimate reasons in and of themselves for the sale of a former parish church building itself when a concerted effort to preserve the church as a sacred space for at least occasional use exists.
All of the above information can be summarized as follows. Parishes in the New York Archdiocese can be merged to create larger parishes, if that is the course of action the Cardinal wishes to undertake. The church buildings of those former parishes however, some of them being majestic structures of great historic significance, cannot merely be closed and sold at the time the parishes associated with them are extinguished unless a grave reason justifying their permanent closure exists. While there is no guarantee that mass will be regularly celebrated in a church which is no longer the seat of a parish, as long as a church remains “open,” (i.e. no decree has been issued to relegate the church to “profane but not sordid use,”) mass must at least be celebrated in it once a year, on the church’s feast day (according to past pronouncements of the Congregation for the Clergy.) Even without regular mass, such activities as the recitation of the rosary, or private silent prayer can still be held in an open church. Canon 1214 guarantees the faithful continued access to a church which remains open, regardless of the frequency of the mass schedule. Thus, it would be wholly inappropriate for Cardinal Dolan, a parish pastor, or some other official of the Archdiocese of New York, or another entity associated with it, to deny access to a church that is open, and has not been relegated to profane but not sordid use to those who wish to make use of the church for the purpose of religious devotion. The fact that all churches that have not been relegated to profane but not sordid use are considered under canon law to be open is summed up clearly in the church and parish closure guidelines of the Congregation for the Clergy, which state “Consequently, one cannot lawfully permanently close a church without first employing the provisions of Can 1222, Section 2, with the corollary that in the absence of applying the provisions of Can. 1222 Section 2, the church is to remain open.
It seems to have been the practice of the Archdiocese of New York to ignore this rule in the past with regard to those who have legitimately wished to enter a church which has not been relegated to profane but not sordid use, but whose parish has been closed. An example of this has been the denial of access of parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church to the church for prayer or any other sacred purpose since 2007, the year Edward Cardinal Egan extinguished Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish. Mass has been celebrated since that time in Our Lady Queen of Angels church, proving that the church has not been relegated to profane but not sordid use, yet former Our Lady Queen of Angels parish members have not to my knowledge at the time of this writing had any of their requests for entry into the church granted by the archdiocese
How to go about “preserving” a Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of New York
The financial responsibility of maintaining and preserving a church which is no longer the site of regular masses in order that it may remain a sacred space is without question that of those who wish for its continued existence as a Catholic place of worship. The Congregation for the Clergy has clearly stated that it is not the financial responsibility of the diocese or archdiocese in which a former parish church is located to maintain the church after the parish associated with it no longer exists. In fact, it is quite likely that over time, those churches which have been designated for occasional use will face permanent closure, sale and/or demolition if funding sources of a magnitude sufficient to ensure their continued preservation as Catholic sacred spaces are not developed. That being said, gathering the funds necessary to insure such a church’s preservation as a Catholic sacred space, while labor intensive, is not as complicated a task as it might appear to be at first glance.
It must be remembered that New York is far from the first diocese which has undertaken a reorganization of its parishes. Some dioceses, especially in the middle and western portions of the United States, were forced to close parishes as far back as nearly a century ago. Soon after opening, some parishes were shuttered on account of towns not developing in the locations where it was believed they would take root, or due to the relocation of a railroad line. Even long ago however, parishioners saw the importance of preserving the churches associated with these closed parishes as sacred spaces, available at the very least for the occasional celebration of mass, and as memorials to the faith of those who labored to build them years before. Thus, in parts of the United States today, churches whose parishes closed as early as the 1920s remain preserved as Catholic churches, in which mass is celebrated several times per year. The question that is probably coming to mind at present, is how such a venture can be sustained, given that there is no active congregation on cite to fund the project through their weekly donations? The answer these early groups came up with was one which now more than ever is a beacon for all who desire to preserve long into the future historic if seldom used Catholic Church buildings.
These early groups of parishioners formed preservation societies, organizations specifically established to raise the funds required to maintain the physical structure of the historic Catholic churches they cared for. Just as some preservation societies around the country maintain historic homes or former public buildings (such as historic courthouses,) these Catholic Church preservation societies raise the funds required to keep the church buildings for which they care in a state of good preservation. They cover the costs of utilities, pay the insurance on the church buildings, and raise the funds necessary for the repairs such buildings of advanced age frequently require.
To raise the money required to undertake this type of project, the preservation societies spread the word among former parishioners of these churches and their descendants, including those who live both in the immediate vicinity of the churches, and those who reside in other parts of the country and world. These groups also invite those members of the community who would like to assist in keeping these historic churches alive as Catholic sacred spaces to donate toward the cause. Often, social events which double as fundraisers are also held, to bring together all of those who have great love for and attachment to the church which the group is preserving. These groups do this all with the cooperation of their diocesan bishops, in cooperative arrangements which in some cases stretch back several decades. The dioceses in which these groups are located have recognized the value in preserving historic Catholic churches as sacred spaces, both to insure these sacred spaces remain available for future generations, and to insure that those who hold great attachment to these historic churches are not needlessly injured by being unnecessarily deprived of these church buildings’ continued presence in their lives. As long as the upkeep of these churches isn’t costing the dioceses and parishes in which they are located anything, the powers that be in many dioceses have over the last several decades seen no harm in allowing these churches to continue to stand and remain tangible symbols of the Catholic faith in the world.
Today, there are more than forty Catholic churches, some used as infrequently as once per year for mass, preserved and maintained by Catholic Church preservation societies across the United States, from New York to California.. It should be stressed that when I speak of preservation, none of the groups I am speaking of has converted a church to a secular purpose, i.e. a community center or the like. Cardinal Dolan should be personally aware of the preservation of Catholic church buildings as a sacred space in this way, because three of the groups overseeing the preservation of Catholic churches are located within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the ecclesiastical territory in which Cardinal Dolan was born, ordained a priest, and consecrated an auxiliary bishop.
Cardinal Dolan also may be aware of the wonderful work carried on by Catholic church preservation groups because of the Friends of St. Ann, in the small community of Sawkill in Ulster County. It is there that one finds St. Ann’s Catholic Church. St. Ann’s parish was established in the late 1860s to serve Irish Catholics who settled in the Sawkill area. The present church, the third constructed during the history of the parish, was built in 1913, the same year the previous church was destroyed by fire. With a decrease in population in the area lying within the boundaries of the parish, St. Ann’s parish was merged into another parish by the archdiocese in 1961, and regular mass ceased to be celebrated at the church a few years later. That might have been the end for St. Ann’s church, and by the mid-1970s, it appeared it very well could be, as the church was showing signs of deterioration thanks to lack of upkeep. Former parishioners however were not content to allow St. Ann’s to fade away. They started an organization, today known as the Friends of St. Ann’s, which over the course of several years repaired the church and which continues to this day to maintain the church in a state of good preservation. Their website can be found here: http://www.saintanns.org/friends_of_st_anns.html Mass is still celebrated at the church several times per year, and the historic church can be toured. The success of the Friends of St. Ann shows that such a project can be carried out in the Archdiocese of New York, and their success should inspire others who would like to see their own church buildings remain sacred spaces, available for the celebration of at least occasional masses.
The guidelines of the Congregation for the Clergy regarding under what circumstances a Catholic church building can be closed have vindicated the efforts of these early Catholic church preservationists, and led to the formation of several new Catholic church preservation groups over the course of the last year. These guidelines, and the work of those who have been preserving historic Catholic churches for the last several decades as sacred spaces, available for the celebration of occasional masses, have provided a template through which those in New York can keep the historic churches of the archdiocese preserved for at least occasional mass, for many decades to come. Through the establishment of a Catholic church preservation group, a funding source capable of supporting the continued maintenance of an individual church will be created that will not drain resources from the Archdiocese of New York, or the new parish in which the former parish church will be located. This guaranteed funding source, supported by those former parishioners of the church and others, both in the local area and outside of it who care about the church’s continued existence, will allow it to remain a Sacred space, available for at least occasional masses, private prayer, the recitation of the rosary, and such other activities as would not defame its sacred character. Such activities could include making the church available for occasional tours, as many of these churches possess unique and irreplaceable architectural elements and masterpieces of religious art. The successful precedents set by Catholic church preservation projects in other parts of the country, combined with the guidelines promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy that encourage the retention of Catholic church buildings whenever possible, provide a clear illustration of how the formation of multiple church preservation societies could lead to the retention in sacred form of many of New York’s most historic and threatened Catholic churches.
It is unclear to me on what grounds the Archdiocese of New York could object to the implementation of preservation plans such as have been outlined above. It might be the case that objections would be raised at the expending of such large sums of money on preserving “buildings,” either on the grounds that those who wish to expend them should not be permitted to “waste” their money in this manner, or that such funds would be better spent on some project or another of the surviving parishes, or of the archdiocese itself. Aside from reminding anyone who wishes to criticize such a project as has been outlined above on these grounds that it is the right of parishioners who feel inspired to undertake such a venture to do so, it should be further pointed out that there is no guarantee that any of the money which might be devoted to such another project as the Archdiocese might wish it to be directed would in fact be donated to that project. It is generally the case that those who open their wallets to preserve a historic church building are doing so, not out of a general desire to aid the church universal, but to help the universal message of the church be spread through the retention of a tangible aspect of its presence in a particular area, i.e. a historic church building. Thus, it is unrealistic to argue that the preservation of a church building drains resources away from projects where they might otherwise be directed. It would be truly unfortunate were any objections to the undertaking of such church preservation efforts, regardless of the form these objections might take, in truth be put forward based on a desire to reap the monetary benefits that could be gained from selling off church property, some of which might be of great value. It appears this practice may have been one of the central causes behind the Congregation for the Clergy’s decision to issue the instructions on parish and church closure it promulgated in 2013.
Recent rulings by the Congregation for the Clergy would seem to favor our analysis. In the city of Buffalo is located the historic Catholic church of St. Ann, formerly the seat of a German personal parish, built in 1886. St. Ann, a massive church which can seat 1500 people, was targeted for closure by the Diocese of Buffalo several years ago. After staving off closure for a number of years, the church was shuttered in 2012. The Diocese of Buffalo argued that St. Ann’s required millions of dollars in repairs, and that neither it nor the parish into which St. Ann was merged had sufficient resources to undertake the repairs the church would need. The diocese, seemingly in an effort to blunt any opposition to its decision, attempted to engage secular developers to preserve the shell of the church in some future repurposing of the site. Tying the preservation of a church building to its forced secularization angered many St. Ann church parishioners, as it should have! Descendants in many cases of those who built the church, these faithful Catholics and their supporters thought it completely unacceptable for St. Anne’s church to be permanently closed and converted to a secular purpose or demolished (demolition being the other idea for the church’s future put forward by the Diocese of Buffalo,) when such a committed group of people existed to restore and maintain the church. Forming the non-profit “Friends of St. Ann’s,” the parishioners appealed the decree issued by Bishop Richard Malone relegating St. Ann’s church to profane but not sordid use. In January 2014, the Congregation for the Clergy reversed Bishop Malone’s decision, and ordered that St. Ann’s church remain a sacred place of worship. The congregation held that the Friends of St. Ann had the right to restore and maintain the church, and that they had demonstrated they were capable of formulating a plan to undertake those repairs which would be necessary to restore the church over a period of time. While each case the Congregation for the Clergy hears is decided on its own merits, the decision in the Case of St. Ann’s church in Buffalo can be said to show that a well-organized Catholic Church preservation group has the right to take responsibility for the long-term preservation of a Catholic church as a sacred space, available for at least the occasional celebration of mass.
While the preservation of a church building, without the fully active parish once associated with it also being preserved may seem like a worthless gesture on the part of some, several things should be taken into consideration. While the weekly mass, and the community of believers who attend it is obviously important to the parishioners of any particular church, it must be remembered that the sacred character of a church building is what must above all else be protected and preserved. Churches by their very nature, as consecrated spaces, have been elevated to a state of being which far surpasses that of any other structure, as they are set aside for the glorification of God. The least we can do as their parishioners and thus their custodians, is to not abdicate our duty to insure that they continue to exist as God’s houses on earth by walking away from them in their greatest hour of need, regardless of what present limitations may exist concerning their regular usage. It should also be remembered that these churches were the ultimate tangible expressions of piety on the part of those Catholics who constructed them, and in ages past brought the faith to New York, and following its arrival, did all in their power to insure it took root. At the time of their construction, it is doubtful that any of those who gave so generously from what little in the way of resources they had could have conceived of the idea that in an age when the overall Catholic population is in possession of vast amounts of wealth and power, these sacred churches would be cast on to the rubbish pile of history. The continued existence of church buildings, even if they only are sites of regularly scheduled private prayer and occasional masses can be of great comfort to those whose families have attended them for generations. Many people involved in church preservation efforts speak of the great piece they feel from knowing that they are insuring through their hard work the continued existence of a sacred space their ancestors constructed with such reverence. Finally, the situation as it exists in Rome itself should be considered when looking at the Catholic churches of New York. Over the centuries, many hundreds of churches have been constructed within the limits of the eternal city. Some of these churches only host public masses, and are only open to the public on special occasions, such as certain feast days. None the less, these churches are still preserved as sacred spaces. A number of these churches, serving as the titular churches of cardinals, are supported in their continued existence at least in part through funds raised by the cardinals whose care they have been in trusted to. Thus, an example of a city containing historic churches, supported in part through donations of those who do not live in the immediate area surrounding them, is one which has been embraced for some time for the care of churches lying directly in the shadow of the Holy See. Cardinal Dolan himself was assigned such a “titular church” when he was created a cardinal.
The permanent loss of one’s church is something from which many never truly recover. It is a pain which is often needlessly inflicted upon those who far too frequently lack the tools to defend themselves from it, on account of their lack of knowledge regarding the rights church buildings enjoy under canon law and of how to undertake their preservation as Catholic sacred spaces. I can say from personal experience that the only thing worse than losing my church has been the loss of several family members during the course of my life. A church is one’s spiritual home. It is the location of the most personal religious moments in our lives and those of our family members. It is the physical place on earth where we find ourselves closest to God. In Boston, the closure of dozens of churches has deprived the Catholics of the city of many spectacular and historic churches, the likes of which will never again be built in this nation. One of the most unfortunate losses in the Boston church closure program was the Church of the Holy Trinity, a German ethnic church constructed in the city’s South End by Patrick Charles Keeley and opened in 1877. Without doubt, there are many examples of churches of the caliber of the Church of the Holy Trinity which are threatened at this moment in New York. If the people of the Archdiocese of New York do not step forward and care for their churches in this their greatest hour of need, the probable sterility of the Catholic architectural landscape in New York City and parts surrounding several years after the implementation of Making All Things New is frightening to consider.
Cardinal Dolan, in discussing Making All Things New, stated that with regard to planning, we should be asking whether something is “just about today,” or “conscious of tomorrow?” It would be truly horrific were we to cast aside the treasures which are New York’s Catholic churches due to the current financial condition of the archdiocese, the pastoral sensibilities of its leaders, and because its Catholic population did not stand up and defend them. That would show a complete lack of concern for the generations who will follow us, who have just as much right as all of us now living to enjoy the historic Catholic churches of New York. Let us pray that together, we can plan for the continued existence of New York’s historic Catholic houses of worship, and prevent their senseless and needless destruction.