In a little park adjoining some housing projects in East Harlem, there’s a group of seven women standing in a semicircle, singing quietly. It’s the weekly meeting of what’s left of the congregation of Our Lady Queen of Angels, and they’ve been here every Sunday morning, rain or shine, for the past five years. In 2007, a list was released of about 10 churches that would be closed throughout the Archdiocese of New York as part of a formal “redistricting” of parishes, including Our Lady Queen of Angels. The years since then have been full of legal battles and heartache, not just for the parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels, but also for the other churches in Manhattan that were closed down that year—some, such as St. Vincent de Paul and Mary Help of Christians, as part of the redistricting, and others, such as Our Lady of Vilnius, because of the intersection of structural issues and dropping attendance. Mary Help of Christians was finally demolished earlier this summer to make way for condos. St. Vincent de Paul, Our Lady Queen of Angels, and Our Lady of Vilnius are all still standing, but shuttered. Nearby nunneries still use Our Lady Queen of Angels, but the parishioners are locked out.
Margarita Barada is 89 years old, and she’s been going to Our Lady Queen of Angels almost her entire life—a good portion of the 127 years that the church has been open. “They broke my heart when they closed this church,” she said, in English and Spanish. Our Lady Queen of Angels was once a primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican church. The parishioners’ current informal Masses in the park are held in English and Spanish, alternating, and sometimes translating, for members who don’t speak either language perfectly. These services date back to when the church was first closed, beginning more as protest vigils than worship. However, over time, they’ve evolved into their current form, allowing the women to discuss their faith and mourn their shuttered church. The other closing churches around the city have also faced similar struggles, and their parishioners have responded with equal measures of grace and grit.
St. Vincent de Paul in Chelsea was the only church in the city that still offered a mass in French, and was a hub for Haitian and French-speaking African immigrants, says Olga Statz, an attorney and former parishioner struggling to save the church. Key in this process, and in the struggle to save the other closing churches, was the Landmarks Preservation Commission. St. Vincent de Paul has enormous historical and artistic value—it was the first racially integrated church in the country and a gathering place for prominent French New Yorkers, including the artists who helped decorate its interiors. To gain landmark status, an application explaining a building’s historical and social value must be submitted to the LPC. If the application is deemed worthy, then a public hearing is held, where different parties can argue for or against the preservation of the building. For example, Mary Help of Christians, another church closed at around the same time, had its application rejected by the LPC, and the lot it stood on was sold for $41 million to a condo developer. The LPC is a government entity, a branch of the city’s administration, and as such should theoretically be unbiased in its declaration of landmark status. However, Statz claims that the archdiocese used its influence in the city government to prevent St. Vincent de Paul’s application from receiving fair consideration. She cites the rejection of their application four times at the administrative level, without a public hearing, as proof of the Catholic Church’s meddling.
Service was a major element in the ministry at St. Vincent de Paul—many of the people who came into the church were undocumented immigrants, some of whom were not even Christian. Part of the mission of the church was to help these immigrants and provide a cultural and spiritual base for them. Given each of the other churches’ connections to immigrant communities, it feels as if the archdiocese is against the churches of immigrants. Granted, it seems like one can’t throw a stone in New York without finding an immigrant community and a church that serves it. There is no way to close a church without robbing some people of their spiritual home. Still, the extensive reach—which can even be intercontinental—that the churches often have cannot be ignored.
“There was a woman, Christine, who told us that before she came to New York, back in her village in Togo, other people told her, ‘There is a church in New York, St. Vincent de Paul, you must find it,’” Statz says. “That’s the kind of reach we have, that villagers in Togo have heard of us.”
One of Statz’s biggest frustrations about the closing of St. Vincent de Paul is that the people it aimed to serve—recently arrived immigrants, the very poor, those without a voice—have been left in the lurch. Her fight against the archdiocese is fueled by a desire to see this community reborn.
“I notice it’s poor people’s churches being closed,” Statz says. “These are the people that make up your rank and file, these are the people that fill up the collection plate, these are the people who need to be married and baptized and buried, that keep the church functioning. And instead of closing the doors to these people so disrespectfully, so ignominiously, you should be thinking, ‘This is our future.’ Right now, the Catholic Church—not all of it, but a good chunk of it—is black and brown and poor.”
Our Lady of Vilnius, located by the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, was also a church of immigrants, founded by Lithuanians and more recently a center for Portuguese and Puerto Rican immigrants, says Christina Nakraseive, a parishioner whose grandparents were founding members of the church. Our Lady of Vilnius was not a church built by wealthy immigrants and as such had more modest interiors—the basement had a charming disco ball—and several niches around the church featured haphazard arrangements of technicolor saints, artificial flowers, and tiny plastic crosses. But to Nakraseive and her friend Elaine Derso, the church was a spiritual and community haven. “I never really felt at home anywhere,” Derso says. “And as soon as I walked into the doors at Our Lady of Vilnius, I knew that that was what I had been looking for.”
The church was closed because a structurally unsound roof made holding services unsafe for parishioners. However, Derso suspects the archdiocese of taking the insurance payout intended to fix the church. The parishioners paid the insurance every month through their tithes, but since the policy was in the archdiocese’s name, the payout was sent to them and never forwarded along. The archdiocese could not be reached for comment about either the insurance money or the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Still, what ultimately leaves these parishioners aching is not necessarily the loss of a building, but the loss of community. Nakraseive told a story about a Lithuanian immigrant studying at Juilliard who played the piano at mass. Growing up in Soviet Lithuania, he hadn’t been raised within the church, and so Father Sawicki, an ex-firefighter from the Bronx, would yell out which piece went with that part of the Mass. “At one of our last Masses, he stood up and said, ‘You know, I think there’s something very spiritual happening here.’ And that was something we heard a lot about the church,” Nakraseive says, her voice breaking.
For Derso, once the chair of the committee Save Our Lady of Vilnius, the commitment to her church is greater than that to the Catholic Church. “At our first meeting [of the committee to Save Our Lady of Vilnius], I just looked around, and I said, ‘You know that we can get excommunicated for this?’ And everyone stayed,” she says. Since the closing of the church, the community around it has largely dissolved.
This is less true for Our Lady Queen of Angels, although Barada laments the loss of service groups that once operated out of the church. However, for these women, there’s an additional anger that dates back to the night the church was closed. Patty Rodriguez was one of the women holding vigil at Our Lady Queen of Angels that night and one of the six women arrested for trespassing after the archdiocese found them inside. While the charges were dropped, there is still the indignity of arrest, not only by the city but also, indirectly, by the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Rodriguez is grateful for the opportunities that the closing has given her.
“I think fighting the Church has made me a better Catholic,” she says. “In a Mass, there’s no way that we would be able to do this, to discuss the readings, anything like that. This has brought me closer to God.” The small meetings that the former parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels have are full of discussion, but still have many of the same elements as a traditional Catholic liturgy—including a blessing, typically done by one of the women there. This violates the Catholic prohibition on women serving as priests, but in the small park in East Harlem, there’s really nothing stopping them. The community also has a somewhat feminist bent—one of the people most involved in helping to save the church was theologian Ada María Isasí-Díaz. Up until her death last year, Isasí-Díaz sent the women a short spiritual reflection each week. For the women at Our Lady of Vilnius, there was also something reaffirming about the femininity in the church. All of the stained glass windows, mounted over light boxes in the absence of natural light, depicted different incarnations of Mary. A traditional Mass literally only allows for the voices of men in leadership roles, but if anything, the campaigns to save the churches across the city have been vocally and strongly feminine. From writing proposals and suggesting lawsuits to gathering in the park on a Sunday morning, the leading voices are all female. Although these women aren’t explicitly challenging the patriarchy of the church, their activism is challenging the limited position women have been allowed to occupy in the church historically.
For all of these women, the fight isn’t over. Last Sunday, Rodriguez mentioned that someone’s husband had told her that the new Pope was personally answering correspondence. Thus began the letter-writing portion of the campaign to save Our Lady Queen of Angels.