Church doors are closed, so they pray on sidewalk


By Jefferson Siegel

The full moon hung over Tompkins Square Park last Sunday as Ismael Casiano unpacked some tools two blocks north of the park near Avenue A. In the chilly night air he sank to his knees and started scraping gum off the pavement in front of Mary Help of Christians, the East Village church closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York 18 months ago.

Casiano, patiently looking for any missed spots, had arrived early because in an hour or so, faithful parishioners would gather in front of the E. 12th St. church to say their nightly rosary.

“It’s for the aesthetics,” Casiano said as he eyed the sidewalk, “and for the beauty of the church itself.”

Casiano paused to take in the building’s facade, illuminated by a single streetlight and the moon.

“It speaks to art,” he said in a quiet, reverential voice. “Like Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel, here I am chiseling gum off the sidewalk. Not for any adulation, but because people come here to pray.”

Two and a half years ago, the archdiocese stunned churchgoers when it announced plans to close or merge 31 parishes and 14 schools, including several in the Village and Downtown.

The closing of Mary Help of Christians in May 2007, however, did not stop longtime worshipers from flocking to their spiritual home. Every night at 7 p.m., as few as a handful and as many as several dozen have gathered in front of the locked doors to say the rosary.

“To me the church is still open,” said Alma Rodriguez. Wandering the streets one day after suffering through a traumatic event, Rodriguez, a resident of Loisaida, said she felt saved finding the church.

“I’ve had miracles happen here in my life,” she continued, choking up. “They wouldn’t destroy the pyramids; why would they destroy the beautiful art that is this church?” Finding the church, she explained, brought her life back into balance.

On Sunday night, Rodriguez only stopped for a moment to say a prayer before leaving. Shortly thereafter, others started arriving for the devotional. One of them was East Villager Judith Aponte, who helped organize the nightly prayer.

“We sent in our third appeal to the Vatican to hear our case,” Aponte said of efforts to reopen the church, noting the first two were denied.

Aponte’s life and the church go almost hand in hand. She had attended Mary Help of Christians since she was 5 and graduated from the church’s grammar school.

“To me, this is my home,” she said.

Shortly after the church closed, there were concerns developers would buy the property. The archdiocese denied the suspicions, but two months ago, The Real Deal, a New York City real estate news magazine, reported the archdiocese had bought two-thirds of the 15,000-square-foot playground behind the church building for $10.4 million. The article noted speculation by real estate professionals that the church, which occupies a 13,000-square-foot lot, and the playground — formerly used for a flea market — would be sold off as one parcel, and ultimately developed into residential housing. A Catholic order, the Salesians, owned the playground property sold to the archdiocese.

Such speculation does not sit well with East Villager Socorro Lara.

“I’ve been living here 20 years,” Lara said before joining eight others to begin the prayer. “I was married here. This is not just a church, it’s our house. It’s something really powerful.”

Moments after 7 p.m., two men kneeled on the sidewalk near the curb as seven others turned to face the church steps. Two framed drawings, one of the Virgin Mary, the other of Jesus, had been placed on the top step along with several candles. The group chanted the rosary in unison for half an hour. One elderly lady stood the entire time leaning on her cane.

As they prayed, cars passed and people continued walking by. One man carrying a skateboard slowed and crossed himself.

Just after 7:30, the group concluded by repeating, “Pray for us,” several times.

Aponte then passed out cookies while Lara retrieved the holy drawings and candles. Holding the image of Jesus in a frame with broken glass, Lara explained that on one of the first nights, the drawing had been knocked over, shattering the glass into 18 pieces. She then noticed there were 18 parishioners in attendance that night. Hoping it was a sign from above, the worshipers have placed the drawing, its glass partially taped but otherwise unrepaired, on the steps every night since then.

Aponte said the evening rosary will continue regardless of the church’s status.

“All are welcome,” she offered.