12 January 2009

Good News for Lithuanians—For Now

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.


Andrew TSKS said...

Apparently this kind of thing is happening all over the country. I read Poppy Z. Brite's blog, and her church in New Orleans is going through a similar struggle. There was even a NYTimes article about it.

This kind of thing is a shame wherever it happens.

Anonymous said...

If people no longer go to church, why should the hierarchy squander money?

If a theater draws a handful of people for a Sunday matinee, it closes.

These parishoners can go to ANY Catholic church to worship. Let them come up with the money, if their parish is so important.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

If nobody takes the train, why not tear down Grand Central? If not enough people use Central Park, why not pave it over? Try to look a bit beyond mundane practical concerns, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

This truly isn't offered in a spirit of blog whoring, just that my picture of this church's cornerstone is one of my favorites.

Niekieno Zmona said...

I go to this church most Sundays even though it is closed. The Church hierarchy never spent any money on the church. It was self supporting, had money in its bank account, paid the cathedraticum and participated in the Cardinal's appeals. The last 3 years of its life, the ones from which the archdiocese draws its stats, the sanctuary was closed and obstructed with scaffolding. Mass was held in the basement hall. Despite this it had, and still has a devoted following. Like the case of St. Brigid, it seems that the archdiocese let the building deteriorate, perhaps to legitimize the closing and reduce the opportunity for public outrage. Viva St. Brigid's! May Our Lady of Vilnius stand to intrigue and comfort the line of motorists waiting to enter the tunnel. Most Sundays we demonstrate across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral and then congregate on the steps of our church on Broome Street. I hope some of Brookes' readers join us.

Anonymous said...

I thiught this blog does not accept "anonymous" comments. Right here,however, "Anonymous" refers to the church hierarchy "squandering money" on churches. As a member of the parish of Our Lady of Vilnius let me make one thing clear. The church was financially solvent, paid its bills, and even paid money into an insurance fund that is allegedly for repairs to churches. The Archdiocese of New York would make millions and millions of dollars from the sale of this property. Population is increasing in the neighborhood surrounding the church. It stands in the shadow of Trump's controversial condo/hotel and within walking distance of Philip Johnson's "swan song" (he himself called it that) apartment complex on Spring Street.
The congregation is small, diverse and lively. Money is the motivating factor in the decision of the Arch diocese to close this church.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

You're right, Ellen, the official policy is Lost City doesn't accept Anonymous comments. But many people (out of stubbornness or because they don't see the notice) still comment anonymously. If I feel their comment is inoffensive, or if I wish to respond to their comment, I occasionally post the comment, the policy notwithstanding. In this case, I wanted to respond to this Anonymous' short-sighted view.