News & Politics

St. Brigid’s Gets 2nd Reprieve

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Supporters of St. Brigid’s church won a second reprieve Thursday when a judge extended the temporary restraining order barring the Archdiocese from continuing its demolition of the embattled East Village cathedral. (See a slideshow of the initial destruction here.)

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Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick extended the order to allow both sides to submit further arguments in writing. She said she would rule on the fate of so-called Famine Church “shortly after” Labor Day.

“Thank the Lord!” exclaimed Edwin Torres, who is one of 73 former parishioners now suing the Archdiocese to block the demolition. “We can rejoice, but only for a little while,” he told a crowd of ecstatic local residents, preservationists, and Irish Americans gathered outside the courthouse.

“Today gives us hope,” added East Village Council rep Rosie Mendez, one of several area politicians who praised the 158-year-old church as a crucible of Lower East Side immigrant history. “It gives us another day to fight, and for people to see that this struggle is just and correct.”

Although Judge Kapnick rejected a previous lawsuit challenging the Archdiocese’s right to raze the church, at issue now is the validity of the demolition permit itself. Former parishioners maintain there was never a vote by a properly convened board of trustees at the time the Archdiocese applied for the permit a year ago.

Instead, the Archdiocese convened a board after the fact, which unanimously approved the demolition on July 18.

Parishioners also question whether the five-member board, which includes two lay trustees appointed by the Archdiocese, was ever presented with alternatives to demolition—namely that a “secret angel” has offered to buy the church at market value in order to preserve it.

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On Tuesday, the Ancient Order of Hibernians seconded that by offering to pony up “millions” to convert the now partially gutted church into an Irish-American museum.

In court, Harry Kresky, an attorney for the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, further claimed that the parish trustees had “violated their duties” by failing to consult with and represent the wishes of the church’s members–a role he claimed is spelled out in the New York law governing religious corporations.

Archdiocese lawyer John Callagy dismissed that argument as a legal “shell game.”

“The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchical church,” Callagy maintained. “There is no consultation required of the parishioners. They have never had a vote in the organization and functions of the Archdiocese . . . and they certainly don’t have a vote in the disposition of its property.”

Callagy said if the court were to block the demolition, it would violate the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

He also warned that continuing to postpone the wrecking crew was “playing with fire.”

“This is not just a nice legal issue. We’re dealing with a situation that could be a catastrophic failure,” he said, referring to the church’s buttressed back wall, which began separating from the building several years ago, causing large cracks to open in the facade.

But Kresky denied the wall was in any imminent danger of collapse. He noted that even after the demolition crew punched an eight-foot hole in it, the wall had not buckled. Earlier this week, he said, a former city engineer estimated the cost to repair the wall at $323,00–a far cry from the $7 million price tag that the Archdiocese is claiming.

“Nowadays everything has a price, but nobody knows the value of anything,” groused Steve Lindsey, a cabbie from New Hampshire who drove five hours to attend Thursday’s hearing. “This is an attack on our heritage,” complained Lindsay, who is in fact Scottish and Jewish. “The symbolism of the smashed windows really offended me,” he said.

The mushrooming campaign to save St. Brigid’s has even managed to bring together organizers of the gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day march in Queens with the anti-gay Ancient Order of Hibernians, who briefly shook hands for the cameras on Thursday, as a lone bagpiper piped in the background.

Supporters say they hope overturning the demolition permit will force the city’s Landmarks commission to step in and preserve the building.

“In Europe, no one would dream of knocking down a church like this,” noted Pete Nekola, a history teacher at Pratt Institute who sends his students on field trips to study church architecture–which seems like an endangered species these days in Manhattan. “I’m really afraid of this loss of heritage.”