News & Politics

Matt Dillon, Patron Saint of St. Brigid’s?


Photo by William Alatriste, taken for the City Council

Taking a break from the trash wars of the West Village, Council Speaker Christine Quinn turned up at back-to-back rallies in the East Village last Thursday to save the embattled P.S. 64 (a.k.a. Charas/El Bohio)—where an appeals court just backed a plan to put up a 19-story dorm—and the half-gutted St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B, whose fate is now being decided by the same appeals court.

Quinn ended up tag-teaming with fellow Irish-American Matt Dillon, who’s been an avid supporter of the 159-year old Famine Church ever since friends told him of the Archdiocese’s intent to demolish it last year.

“This church is part of our history,” said Dillon, who said he first fell in love with St. Brigid’s when he filmed it for a scene in his movie, City of Ghosts. “It’s the third oldest church in the city. It was built by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, by shipbuilders who were the first longshoremen in the city.”

“It’s unbelievable to me that the Catholic Church would even consider destroying it,” Dillon told the Voice, adding, “If the city keeps going the way it’s going with all this new development, it’s going to end up looking like Toronto.”

Dillon said he was also glad to lend his support to the imperiled P.S. 64, located just a block away from St. Brigid’s. Thanks to the bulwark of scaffolding encasing the old school, the rally for P.S. 64 was held in front the neighboring Christodora House—a swank condo building that became a hated symbol of East Village gentrification in the 1980s, but has since become a headquarters for the campaign to save P.S. 64 from dorm-ification.

Quinn gamely climbed up on a chair in her two-inch heels to address the diverse crowd.

“Whether Charas or St. Brigid’s or a long other history of things, this neighborhood has a proven record that when it stands together, the Lower East Side almost always wins,” she told its supporters.

But that word “almost” was hard to ignore, given the breakneck pace of redevelopment on the L.E.S. these days. And though Quinn pledged “the full resources of City Council” —going so far as to offer to file an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit by former parishioners seeking to block St. Brigid’s demolition—that offer felt a bit thin considering that the case was to be heard by the Appellate Division the next day.

Although the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s has received some high-powered backing from the law firm Holland & Knight, which is now representing the former parishioners pro-bono, this is the same court that rejected their last lawsuit to save the church. And the courts have declined to intervene in numerous other church closures. (A State Supreme Court judge ruled Thursday that the Archdiocese has the right to shutter Our Lady of Vilnius, a Lithuanian parish on Broome Street.)

The Appellate Division is expected to rule on St. Brigid’s at the end of June.

Officials at the Archdiocese maintain that St. Brigid’s must come down because its rear wall is in danger of collapse. They deny persistent rumors that the property, which borders Tompkins Square Park, is being cleared for condos, insisting instead that the land will be used for “some church purpose.” They’ve declined to specify what that purpose might be.

Dillon had plenty of suggestions as he gazed up St. Brigid’s canary-yellow façade glowing in the last rays of the sun. “I think they should save it and turn it into a museum to celebrate the history of Catholics coming to New York, starting with the Irish who built St. Brigid’s, and going all the way through the Eastern Europeans and the Latino immigrants who settled in this neighborhood. It could become something that’s in every New York City guidebook—a must-see destination like Mission Dolores in San Francisco—and add a richness to Catholic New York and the whole of the city.”

“It’s not just the Catholic history that’s worth saving, it’s the aesthetic beauty of St. Brigid’s,” Dillon added in earnest. “The city needs this.”

photo by Sarah Ferguson

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