Committee celebrates the salvation of St. Brigid’s

By Albert Amateau

Neighbors, elected officials and friends from near and far gathered on Feb. 1, the Feast of St. Brigid, to celebrate the victory of the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s in the group’s long struggle to prevent the demolition of the 1849 church on Tompkins Square Park.

The committee saw its dream come true last May when the Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced it had accepted a $20 million donation from an anonymous donor, including $10 million to restore and maintain the building and the parish and another $10 million to endow parish schools in the area.

The donor is still anonymous and the archdiocese has declined to identify the “angel” who made the gift.

Edwin Torres, leader of the committee, told the gathering on Sunday that the archdiocese had received the last $5 million installment of the $10 million for the building restoration on Dec. 16 and that architects and engineers have been working in the building at 119 Avenue B since the beginning of the year.

“We’ve been at the site at least once a week and we’ve spoken to the engineers — they’re testing the bricks and mortar in the church to see the extent of the problems,” Torres said, adding, “This will probably be the last meeting of the committee — we’ve achieved what we set out to 10 years ago. But we’ll continue to monitor the site,” he said.

Harry Kresky, who with Marissa Marinelli has been representing the committee in its lawsuit against the archdiocese and taking the case to two State Supreme Court hearings and an Appellate Division argument, told The Villager, “It’s funny — we’ve never won a court case but we stopped the demolition — that’s good lawyering.”

Torres gave some credit to a higher power: “First of all, I want to thank the Lord for all the blessings He’s given us,” he said.

The court case was headed to a last-chance shot in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, when the archdiocese accepted the $20 million donation. Lawyers for the committee had agreed to drop the case pending three conditions: if the archdiocese surrendered a demolition permit it received in 2005; if the three-member St. Brigid board of trustees — with two archdiocese representatives and one representative from the parish — approved the restoration of the building; and if all the restoration money became available by the end of December 2008.

All those conditions have been satisfied, and lawyers will sign a stipulation on Feb. 11 to withdraw the case from the Court of Appeals, Kresky said.

About 100 advocates, including members of the Emerald Society — who joined the fight three years ago to save the church built by Irish immigrant boatwrights — were on hand on Feb. 1 at Solas, the lounge on E. Ninth St. that has become a social center for St. Brigid’s partisans.

Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Councilmember David Yassky, from Brooklyn, dropped by to congratulate the committee. They paid tribute to the courage of the committee and agreed that victory sometimes comes if the cause is just and one keeps fighting.

“I remember my excitement last May when [Councilmember] Rosie Mendez called me to say she heard that someone donated the money to save the church,” Velazquez recalled.

Yassky said that St. Brigid’s struggle was an inspiration for Catholic parishes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which are facing closure to keep fighting.

The guests also came to partake of the food the committee laid out for the celebration. The homemade empanadas by Nilsa Fiol were “great,” said Squadron, and so were the quiches, also homemade by Patti Kelly. Yassky paid tribute to the pierogis provided by Veselka restaurant on Second Ave.

Among the guests was John Murray, who came from the Upper East Side to his old neighborhood.

“I was married in St. Brigid’s in 1955,” he said. “Father Lynch — Monsignor Lynch — married us. My wife, Maryann, was born in the neighborhood.”

Emerald Society members, including Frank Jordan, from Queens, and Robert Earley, from Long Island, were also on hand.

“The parish was going it alone for a long time,” said Jordan. “We came on a little later — happy to give a little push.”

“We went up against the cardinal [Egan],” said Earley, adding, “The worst thing you can say to an Irishman is ‘It can’t be done.’ ”

St. Brigid’s, designed by the Irish-born architect Patrick Keely, was built during the famine year of 1848-’49. It first served Irish immigrants and others as they moved into the neighborhood, becoming a mostly Latino parish in the past three decades. In the early 1950s, the spires on the two western towers were taken down as the building deteriorated.

A crack in the church’s eastern back wall compromised the safety of the building and prompted the archdiocese to order it closed in the summer of 2001. Masses were held in the basement of the nearby parish school built in 1959 on Avenue B and E. Seventh St.

On Sept. 12, 2004, Bishop Robert Brocato, vicar general of the archdiocese, announced that the parish would be dissolved because of a decline in the number of worshipers.

In 2005, the archdiocese secured a demolition permit and removed the church organ and statuary for storage on Staten Island, prompting the committee to go to court to prevent demolition. Later than year, contractors for the archdiocese punched a hole in the east wall and the committee secured a court order barring further work, except for stabilizing the building.

St. Brigid, whose feast day is Feb. 1, was born in 457, the daughter of a Christian mother and a father, a Celtic chieftain, probably pagan, according to some accounts. She took the veil after she refused to accept a suitor chosen by her father, and eventually became abbess of the cloister at Kildare. A younger contemporary of St. Patrick, she was known as the patron saint of scholars. She died in 525. Her feast day was also the first day of spring in the pagan calendar. One legend has it that medieval knights who venerated Brigid were the first who referred to their wives as “brides” in her honor.