Yes, make bones about it: Grave moment for church

Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P., at right, speaking at the May 22 rally outside Mary Help of Christians Church.
Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P., at right, speaking at the May 22 rally outside Mary Help of Christians Church.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  | Last Wed., May 22, East Village community members and local preservation groups, in a bid to stop the demolition of Mary Help of Christians Church, called for a full archaeological review of the site. A Catholic cemetery was once located there, with possibly as many as 41,000 people’s remains, they noted.

Joining the rally, outside the shuttered church at E. 12th St. west of Avenue A, were representatives of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, the Historic Districts Council and the East Village Community Coalition.

The historic house of worship was made famous by Allen Ginsberg, who lived across the street from it and referred to it in his poetry.

The property  — including its spacious blacktop yard stretching down to 11th St. along Avenue A — was recently purchased by developer Douglas Steiner. Demolition permits have been issued for the church, its 150-year-old rectory and its 90-year-old school building.

The opponents note that the site’s large, blacktop yard “would allow a great deal of space for new development without demolishing any of the historic buildings.” Thus far, however, the developer has refused to consider reuse of the historic buildings.

While a 2008 rezoning that community groups fought for prevents a high-rise from being developed on this site, the current plans would replace all the buildings with new luxury residential development and retail space.

The church was formerly the site of the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where thousands of people were buried starting in the early 19th century following the Asian cholera outbreak of 1832. This was only the third — and at the time the largest — Catholic cemetery in New York.

While the graveyard was moved to Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1909, it is not known if all remains were removed and cleared from the site or if some still lie in burial underneath, the preservationists contend. Records only state that 3,000 to 5,000 people’s remains were relocated.

They recently wrote to Steiner, as well as the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, calling for a complete archaeological evaluation of the site, “as required by law,” in such cases before any work proceeds, to prevent disturbance of any burial site or human remains that may still be there.

“It would be a tragic waste and shame if these beautiful buildings, so full of New York’s history, were demolished for expediency’s sake,” said Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director. “Their rich and intricate architecture cannot be duplicated, and would only be replaced by something much less distinctive and precious. A smart developer would recognize that by preserving and reusing these historic buildings, and building on the large adjacent yard, he would not only be doing a good deed, but creating an infinitely more unique and valuable development than simply bulldozing the entire site and starting anew.”

Said Sara Romanoski, managing director of the East Village Community Coalition, “The church buildings are a testament to the Italian immigrant legacy in New York City and remain living monuments. As a community, we ask the developer to recognize the opportunity for incorporating these architecturally significant buildings into the new development.”

Spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon told The Villager, “The Landmarks Preservation Commission has no jurisdiction over this site, and cannot require any parties to conduct archaeology. However, we have shared a list of accredited archaeologists with the site’s owner in order to assist in any effort to conduct an archaeological study in advance of starting work at the site.”