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Supporters Resume Push to Save 170-Year-Old Sarkozy-Backed French Church

By Mathew Katz | March 28, 2012 7:00am
Supporters want the city to landmark St. Vincent de Paul church in Chelsea before the Archdiocese of New York can sell the space.
Supporters want the city to landmark St. Vincent de Paul church in Chelsea before the Archdiocese of New York can sell the space.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

CHELSEA — The French government and a collection of Francophone New Yorkers are hoping the fourth time's the charm in their six-year effort to save the city's only French-speaking Catholic church.

Parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church, which has been standing on West 23rd Street since the 1850s, have been fighting since 2006 to try to preserve the building, which they call an historic and cultural treasure that deserves to be landmarked.

But staff at the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission has rejected that notion — three times over.

Advocates are now staging another attempt to save the building that's pitted a collection of churchgoers — and even the President of France — against the Archdiocese of New York and the city, which says the church isn't eligible for landmarking.

The cash-strapped Archdiocese of New York, which owns the building, has been trying to shut down the church, and since 2006 and has resisted attempts to landmark it by some of the 400 parishioners who worship there, among others.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has shot down three applications to consider the building for landmarking so far, saying the church does not meet the criteria for designation as a landmark because it had significant work done post-construction.

"Our research showed the staff that the existing Greek Revival facade of the church replaced the original Romanesque Revival facade in 1939," said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for LPC. "The replacement facade was designed by a little-known architect."

De Bourbon added that the commission understands the church has great significance to its community, but that it can only propose for landmarks designation a select group of buildings that are the most architecturally and historically significant.

That doesn't sit well with the advocacy group Save St. Vincent de Paul — a conglomeration of regular parishioners, high-ranking officials from the French government, including France's U.S. Ambassador François Delattre, along with prominent local elected officials — which is in the process of generating a new bid for landmarking.

The repeated rejection by the LPC staff, who refuse to let the application go before the board, has angered advocates, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wrote to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan to express his outrage.

"[Y]ou will understand my surprise that this application is not being examined more closely and that the church’s historical, cultural and architectural richness — on par with that of other churches that have received landmark status from the Commission — are not being taken into account," Sarkozy wrote in a letter dated Dec. 1, 2009.

"I believe the application to obtain landmark status for the building, prepared by the organizing Save St. Vincent de Paul, deserves to be presented to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, even though it was dismissed without any real justification by City agencies,” Sarkozy added.

Supporters said landmarking the building would limit what any potential new owner could do with it, and make it far less desirable to a developer should the church choose to sell it.

"By getting it landmarked, it's difficult to tear down," said Olga Statz, one of the organizers of the campaign to save the church. "It would put the church in a different strata in terms of whether it's good to purchase by a developer."

Supporters said that they are renewing their campaign because of signs that the church might be headed for a sale: The building's roof was damaged by Hurricane Irene last August, yet church officials have not allowed it to be repaired, even though churchgoers offered to pay to fix it themselves, they said.

Statz, who's been a regular attendee at the church since the 1970s, said the church doesn't only have architectural merit. Since it was founded, St. Vincent's has been a melting pot for French-speakers of all backgrounds. In the 19th century, the church attracted a mixed audience of French-speaking African-Americans and wealthy French people.

"That's why this church is so remarkable," said Statz, whose own parents came from Haiti. "The church was always that focal point, and the one thing that everyone had in common was the French language."

Today, it continues to provides a role to a niche group of Catholics, as many attendees are French-speaking immigrants from Africa and Haiti, traveling in from the outer boroughs to Chelsea.

That cultural importance convinced officials to make the church eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places, but the Archdiocese has refused to accept the listing, advocates say.

Clergy at St. Vincent de Paul would not comment on the efforts to save it, and pointed out that Save St. Vincent de Paul is separate from the church itself.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York said that it still plans to move forward with a plan to combine the St. Vincent de Paul parish with that of St. Columba Church on West 25th Street, but that it hasn't settled on how that plan will be implemented.

Statz herself said she realizes the fight against the Archdiocese is an uphill battle, and that her organization will continue to raise funds and push for a new landmark application to be looked at by the full commission.

"If the President of France has written to say that this is important, perhaps there should be a public hearing," she said.

"If this place is not landmarkable, there's no building in the city that should be landmarked."