St. Brigid’s is hanging on by a prayer after ruling

By Albert Amateau

The Committee to Save St. Brigid’s is still fighting to save the East Village church, built by immigrant Irish boat builders, despite a Feb. 13 State Supreme Court ruling lifting an injunction that has prevented the Catholic Archdiocese from demolishing the 1849 building.

The much-loved but decrepit building received a reprieve on Feb. 16 when the committee’s lawyer, Harry Kresky, obtained a temporary restraining order pending an appeal against the demolition.

“The building is still fixable,” said Edwin Torres, chairman of the committee. “We’ve been lucky to have had a mild winter until two weeks ago and we hope the Appellate Division will let us appeal.”

The building at 199 Avenue B across the street from Tompkins Square Park has been deteriorating for years and the archdiocese declared it unsafe in 2001 because of crack in the east wall at the rear of the church. Masses were held in the church building next door until 2004 when the archdiocese dissolved the parish, saying it had too few worshippers.

Parishioners, mostly Irish-Americans in years gone by and in recent decades largely Hispanic, raised money to preserve the building, but the sum was deemed inadequate for the restoration. Parishioners marched in demonstrations, pleaded with the archdioceses not to demolish the building, designed by the Irish-born architect Patrick Keely, and finally went to court to save the building.

The issues, including the validity of a city demolition permit obtained by the archdiocese, have been before two State Supreme Court justices and once to the Appellate Division, which maintained an injunction against demolition but returned the case to a lower court for a decision on a point of state law.

But in between successive injunctions, the archdiocese has removed church furnishings, statues and an organ and destroyed painted-glass windows to prepare for razing the church.

State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick issued a new injunction more than a year ago pending her decision on whether the state Religious Corporations Law, which governs the relationship of church boards of directors with their congregations, applies to the Catholic Church. Lawyers for the archdiocese last year argued that it does not because the Catholic Church is hierarchical, not congregational.

Kresky argued that the Religious Corporations Law does indeed apply to the Roman Catholic Church and that St. Brigid’s hadn’t had a board of directors for years until the archdiocese appointed one last year to ratify the decision to demolish the venerable building. Kapnick, however, agreed with the archdiocese and ruled that the state could not interfere with its decisions without violating the First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Meanwhile, several Irish-American organizations and Lower East Side neighborhood groups have been urging the archdiocese to repair St. Brigid’s as a memorial to the Irish who built the “famine church” and the succeeding immigrant parishioners.

One potential benefactor more than a year ago offered to pay for repair of the building, but the archdiocese has said the proposal was not feasible. In responses to charges that the property was destined for luxury residential development, Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for Cardinal Edward Egan, said last year that the archdiocese intended it for “religious purposes” after demolition, but he added that nothing had been decided.

Torres, however, has not given up hope.

“Catholics and all New Yorkers see St. Brigid’s as a brick-and-mortar embodiment of our city’s past, a standing piece of history,” Torres said. “We call on everyone to step up and contact the archdiocese with any help to refurbish St. Brigid’s before the courts clear a path for its destruction.”