Fight to save church goes to state’s highest court

[media-credit name=”Photo by Jefferson Siegel” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]
Supporters of Our Lady of Vilnius rallied outside the church in February 2007. Cardinal Egan had padlocked the Broome St. church by stealth a few days earlier.
By ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Lithuanian-American parishioners of Our Lady of Vilnius, the Roman Catholic Church near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, took their fight to Albany on Tuesday to save their parish and the 101-year-old building.

Their lawyer, Harry Kresky, and lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York argued the case before the seven judges of the State Court of Appeals, the highest court of New York State.

A group of parishioners have been holding Sunday prayer vigils on the shuttered church’s steps since February 26, 2007, after the archdiocese dissolved the parish and locked the church doors.

The doors were locked while a parish administrator was at a meeting with Edward Cardinal Egan, then archbishop of New York, on the fate of the parish and the proposal to demolish the church building at 570 Broome St. completed in 1910.

Since then, the Save our Lady of Vilnius Committee and members of the Lithuanian-American community have gone to the state courts to save the church, but the lower courts turned them down.

However, a year ago, the Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case.

Christina Nakraseive, vice chairperson of the committee to save the parish, said that about 10 members made the trip to Albany this week to hear the arguments.

Among them was Stasia Aleliunas, whose husband, George, died last year at the age of 90, and her daughter.

“It was really moving to see that Mrs. Aleliunas made the trip to Albany with her daughter,” Nakraseive said. “The judges asked Kresky and the lawyers for the archdiocese a lot of questions; they seemed to want to get to the crux of the matter.”

Mindaugas Blaudziunas, known as “Gus,” the parishioner who filed the state action against the archdiocese, also attended the Albany hearing. He said a favorable decision could affect many local parishes that have closed in recent years and others scheduled to be closed.

Kresky said later that the Our Lady of Vilnius issue was similar to one six years ago involving St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village on Avenue B at E. Eighth St.

But the St. Brigid’s issue was never decided because the case became moot when an anonymous “angel” donated $20 million to restore the badly deteriorated church and support area Catholic schools. The archdiocese agreed to reactivate St. Brigid’s parish and repair the 1849 building, so the case was dropped.

Kresky said he argued at the Court of Appeals that a section of the state’s Religious Corporation Law and the bylaws of Our Lady of Vilnius made clear that the members of the corporation are the parishioners and as such they must approve the demolition of the church because it would result in a diversion of the corporation’s main asset.

Lawyers for the archdiocese have been arguing, based on the First Amendment, that the State of New York and its courts have no business being involved in affairs of the Roman Catholic Church and what it does with its property.

Kresky would not guess how long the court would take to decide. The complex issue has never been settled in state courts and a decision would need at least four of the seven judges concurring, he added.

Nakraseive recalled that two years before the parish was dissolved, the archdiocese erected a scaffold in the sanctuary to monitor leaks in the roof. As a result, Masses, wedding and funerals were shifted to the basement. The shift subsequently caused attendance at Masses and religious functions to decline. Moreover, the neighborhood changed radically beginning in the 1920s when the Holland Tunnel was being built, impacting the local Lithuanian community, most of whom moved to the suburbs.

Nevertheless, Nakraseive said, there were about 100 active Lithuanian-American parish members and some of them always showed up for Mass at the church.

One parishioner, Joe Zaccaria, drew up petitions to the Curia in the Vatican pleading for Our Lady of Vilnius Church.

“We received a letter in Latin which just said the Curia agreed with Cardinal Egan’s decision to close the church,” Nakraseive said.