When the Archdiocese of New York started swinging the wrecking ball at various churches a couple years back, one of the most vociferous and prolonged protests came from the tiny congregation of Soho's Our Lady of Vilnius Church, a historic house of worship that once served a thriving Lithuanian community.
That community has some small reason to smile today. An appellate court has temporarily blocked the Archdiocese's effort to demolish the building at 568-570 Broome Street, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.
The church's journey to this momentary victory has been a long and tortured one. Per City Room:
The archdiocese announced on Jan. 19, 2007, that the church would close, saying that average weekly Mass attendance was fewer than 100 people and that no weddings and baptisms had been celebrated there in years. It padlocked the church on Feb. 26, 2007. But 15 or so protesters continued to gather every Sunday for a prayer vigil, at which they held signs, ate Lithuanian rye bread, propped up white crosses in the front of the church and prayed for its reopening.
In April 2007, the Lithuanian president, Valdas Adamkus, visited the Vatican and asked Pope Benedict XVI to intercede to save the parish.
In May 2007, a state judge, Shirley Werner Kornreich, rejected a lawsuit by parishioners who argued that the archdiocese had no right to close the church. Then the parishioners filed another lawsuit, arguing that under state law, the archdiocese could not demolish the church without meeting with the church’s trustees.
Similar lawsuits, raising related legal issues, were brought by parishioners at St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church, at 119 Avenue B in the East Village, facing Tompkins Square Park. That church, built by Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine in the 1840s, closed in 2001 because of structural problems, and the final Mass, in the basement of the Catholic school next door, was in 2004.
In May 2008, an anonymous donor came forward with $20 million to save St. Brigid’s. In August, the archdiocese withdrew its application for a demolition permit. The litigation is now expected to be settled.
On Nov. 18, 2008, Justice Louis B. York ruled against the parishioners at Our Lady of Vilnius, citing, in part, the earlier decision by Justice Kornreich. Under state law, courts in general defer to church hierarchy in making decisions about real property.
On Dec. 23, 2008, the archdiocese’s demolition company, A. Russo Wrecking, sent letters to landowners stating that demolition was to take place “in the near future.” But now, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court has issued a stay, indicating it would hear the appeal of Justice York’s decision.
Do I think the plaintiffs will prevail? No, I do not, sad to say. Governments do not like to mess with religious authorities. It's bad politics, even if it turns ecclesiastical leader into virtual dictators, above every law, petition and protest. The Archdiocese of New York has always been a big bully, and they will not back down in this instance, any more than they would in any other.