‘No room at the inn’; Push to make church site low-income units

At Saturday’s rally, women placed flowers in the closed gate of the Church of the Nativity on Second Ave. Photo by Carlos “Chino” Garcia

BY REBECCA FIORE | During a bilingual prayer service at Most Holy Redeemer Church last Saturday afternoon, more than 60 locals and parishioners rallied to ask the Archdiocese of New York to turn over the closed Church of the Nativity to a land trust that would transform the property into affordable housing for families, seniors and the disabled.

“The people prayed that the church building be used to benefit the poorest of the poor by using church resources to build affordable housing,” Valerio Orselli, project director for the Cooper Square Community Land Trust, said.

After the prayer service, led by Father Sean McGillicuddy, at Most Holy Redeemer, at 173 E. Third St., between Avenues A and B, the group walked the two blocks over to the Modernist-designed Church of the Nativity, at 44 E. Second Ave., between E. Second and E. Third Sts. The latter was where Dorothy Day, the leader of the Catholic Worker movement, worshiped and where her funeral was held in 1980. Day is now up for possible canonization.

The demonstrators sang songs, including “This Land is Your Land” and placed red roses on the shuttered church’s closed gate.

“The Nativity Church for a very long time had a celebration to Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Aracelis Santana, a parishioner and Lower East Side resident for more than 32 years. “Hundreds of people would come in and pray to the blessed mother for a miracle. We are doing the same thing now, asking the blessed mother for a miracle.”

Five years ago, the 100-year-old Mary Help of Christians Church, at 440 E. 12th St., was closed and sold to be developed for luxury housing, which Orselli said, caused displacement pressures in the community.

“To have the church turned into luxury housing is unconscionable,” he said. “We want this to be a way of honoring Dorothy Day and her spirit and we want the church to be involved to make this happen.”

Other Downtown Catholic church closings in recent years have seen the St. Ann’s Church property, on E. 12th St., developed as a New York University dormitory, and the former Our Lady of Vilnius Church, at the west end of Broome St. in Hudson Square, demolished for a 25-story condo tower, with units currently selling for $1.37 million to $3.3 million.

Among those speaking at the rally was Councilmember Margaret Chin, who told the crowd she will reach out to other local politicians to write a joint letter to the archdiocese, asking that the Nativity property be allowed to be developed as affordable housing.

On Sept. 11, Orselli and Santana, along with Martha Hennessy, a granddaughter of Dorothy Day; Carmen Trotta from the Catholic Worker; Gisela Jasmine Gomez, the president of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association; and Joyce Ravitz, chairperson of the Cooper Square Committee, signed a letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, explaining their plan.

The letter formally asks Dolan to remove the Church of the Nativity and its rectory from sale on the open market and to consider giving the property to the Cooper Square Community Land Trust, “to be redeveloped to address unmet needs of our Lower East Side community.”

Orselli said, if the Church is not willing to hand the property over for free, they are willing to negotiate on a price for it, as well. Orselli said Catholic Charities, an organ of the archdiocese, actually would handle the sale.

Santana, who has lived on the Lower East Side since she was 12 years old, said affordable housing is essential.

“For me,” she said, “being a single mother and having to raise two kids by myself, it’s important to maintain low-income and affordable housing because, if not, I would have had to move out.”

In addition to affordable housing, the petitioners also want to replace services for the homeless community that were available at the Holy Name Center, which Dolan closed in 2014.

Orselli said the building could be a community center, providing a place to shower and clean up, a place to get mail, and “to have a sense of dignity.”

The letter also states that part of the building would be set aside as a sanctuary honoring the memory of Dorothy Day.

Over the past 20 years, the Cooper Square Committee has secured 21 buildings in the Lower East Side and converted them to affordable housing and community spaces, Orselli said. The land under these is owned by the C.S.C.L.T., which was created in 1994.

“We have done it before,” he said. “But we have never done it with a church building before. There are very few expansions available to the C.S.C.L.T. because the Lower East Side is being gentrified. This is an opportunity to make affordable housing for the community.”

The Cooper Square Committee previously has developed or renovated Section 8 housing at the Thelma Burdick Apartments at 10 Stanton St., the Cube Building co-op at 16 Second Ave, and the JASA Section 202 senior housing, at 200 E. Fifth St., at Cooper Square, according to the letter. Orselli said, ideally, about 80 to 100 residential units — a mix of two-bedrooms, one-bedrooms and studios — could be built at the Nativity site.

Although the archdiocese has received the letter, it has not yet responded to Orselli.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York, said in an e-mail, that the Church of the Nativity belongs to Most Holy Redeemer, since the two merged, and is not owned by the archdiocese.

“In parishes where there is unused property, the archdiocese works with parish leadership to determine the best course of action,” he said. “Nothing has been determined at this time for Nativity Church.”

“We understand they have many responsibilities. This is one of 18 churches,” Orselli said of the number of former archdiocese churches currently for sale on the open market. “We are not expecting action tomorrow. But I’m hoping they will meet with us sooner rather than later. We are trying to make the project proposal concrete. It will take at least a couple of years. All we are asking now is for the church not to sell the building to a developer.”

Orselli said he’s appealing to the Church’s sense of justice, to provide housing to their community.

“We are talking about developing the church, there’s no room at the inn at the Nativity Church at the present time,” he said.

Santana said she didn’t want their efforts to be seen as a protest.

“This is not a strike against the archdiocese,” she said. “It’s a cry for mercy.”