Church demo permit issued; restraining order stays

By Albert Amateau

The good news for former parishioners and East Village neighbors seeking to save St. Brigid’s Church is that State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick on Tuesday continued the injunction temporarily restraining the Roman Catholic Archdiocese from demolishing the 156-year-old church.

The not-so-good news is that the archdiocese on Monday secured a Department of Buildings permit to demolish the embattled building on Avenue B and E. Eighth St. But Neil Merkl, attorney for the archdiocese, assured Judge Kapnick that the archdiocese would not move while the injunction remained in effect.

“Since you got the [demolition] permit yesterday, the temporary restraining order stays until my ruling,” Kapnick replied. She told Merkl and Harry Kresky, attorney for the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, that she had heard all the arguments and read all the documents necessary for a ruling but she gave no indication when she would make the decision.

Longtime court observers said they believed Kapnick would take the time to draft a written opinion with a decision perhaps three weeks or a month away.

The Aug. 30 hearing attracted more East Village neighbors and supporters than could fit into the courtroom; many of them had to wait in the corridor outside. After the hearing, the crowd gathered at the foot of the stairs in front of the courthouse at 60 Centre St. for a rally around a 4-foot plywood model of St. Brigid’s.

The building, which developed a dangerous crack in the east wall, was closed in 2001, after which Masses were held in the school building next door. The congregation raised $103,000 to restore the church building, but a year ago, the Trinitarian order that ran the parish decided it could no longer bear the expense and the archdiocese dissolved the parish; soon after, the archdiocese announced the intention to demolish the building and redevelop the site, but insisted that plans for the property were not set.

Kresky argued this week, however, that the property doesn’t belong to the archdiocese but really is in the hands of a board of trustees made up of three church officials and two lay members from the parish who must meet and vote on disposition of the property. There are no lay members on the board and haven’t been any for years, Kresky acknowledges, “but it hasn’t made a difference until now because the parish was using the building.”

Kresky also argued that there was an implied promise to restore the venerable building at 119 Avenue B across from Tompkins Square Park because of the $103,000 raised by parishioners.

Merkl, however, argued that St. Brigid’s belongs to the archdiocese, which has three members of the St. Brigid’s board of trustees: Cardinal Egan, Bishop Robert Brucato and Monsignor Thomas Gilleece, an archdiocese official who stands in for the former Trinitarian pastor of St. Brigid’s, Reverend Michael Conway, who was transferred a year ago when the parish was dissolved.

Merkl further argued that there was no promise to restore the building, which the archdiocese estimates would take more than $500,000. He noted that the archdiocese had announced that it would return the money to the parishioners who donated it.

Merkl also asserted a First Amendment issue, saying the court has no right to order the archdiocese to keep the parish open or to prevent demolition of church property.

St. Brigid’s was built in 1848 by Irish boatwrights who worked in East River boatyards to a design by Patrick Keely, an Irish-born architect who designed Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Albany.

The condition of the church building, some of whose stained-glass windows were gifts of the faithful in the 19th century, had been deteriorating for years. It the mid-1960s, the two original gothic-style stone spires were taken down.

The parish school adjacent to the rectory next to the church is not slated for demolition and the education department of a Catholic college will operate the school this year.

A year ago, the Department of Buildings issued a permit to convert the vacant church into a five-story residence. However, the demolition permit indicates that the property will likely be sold to a developer. The archdiocese, however, insists that no decision has been made yet on how the property will be used.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the archdiocese, said the closing of the parish was decided in the context of a general reassessment of all the parishes in the New York archdiocese begun more than two years ago.

The reassessment could result in the closing of other parishes in the archdiocese and the establishment of new ones, Zwilling said.