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Turn City's Closed Catholic Churches into Homeless Shelters, Residents Say

By Shaye Weaver | December 2, 2015 3:55pm
 A group of Manhattan residents are calling on the Archdiocese of New York to reopen its shuttered churches as shelter for the homeless.
A group of Manhattan residents are calling on the Archdiocese of New York to reopen its shuttered churches as shelter for the homeless.
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DNAinfo/Shaye Weaver

UPPER EAST SIDE — A group of Manhattan residents are calling on the Archdiocese of New York to turn the dozens of churches it closed earlier this year into homeless shelters.

Instead of keeping them vacant or selling them for millions, the group — eight friends, most of whom are Catholic — said the Archdiocese should use the churches’ empty rectories, classrooms and convents as emergency and even long-term housing for the homeless.

The group has been posting fliers on the doors of shuttered churches across Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx over the last couple of weeks with the hashtag "#openthesedoors” and created a website featuring an Advent calendar that will display the doors of a shuttered church each day — 24 of them total — to call attention to the vacancies. The website also has an open letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

"The Archdiocese has stated its mission to create long-term, adequate housing for people and this aligns so closely," said Sean McCreight, a 10th grade English teacher and member of the group. "The Advent calendar shows that it is important for all of us to acknowledge that housing those in need is a joyful action. It doesn’t have to be about the sorrow of this reality but that it can bring a great deal of joy as the season tends to do."

The group’s hope it that the website starts a conversation about the Catholic Church's plans for its empty properties across the city, especially in light of the Christmas season when 60,000 people are without a home each night, McCreight said.

Rectories have several rooms, including sitting rooms, living rooms, and a couple of bedrooms that could easily hold 10 people, said Karen Gargamelli, an Upper West Side resident and housing attorney.

"What does it mean that we're still turning people away and keeping people on the streets, especially when there is so much vacancy?" she said. "Turning people away as lights are being hung in the street in the capitalist gear-up for Christmas. It's such a stark reality."

If the Catholic Church cannot run the facilities itself, it could partner with other groups that could, McCreight and Gargamelli suggested.

Friends of Our Lady of Peace, the former parishioners of the Our Lady of Peace church on East 62nd Street, who have been lobbying for their church to reopen, agree that the empty churches should be put to good use if the Archdiocese does not reopen them as houses of worship.

"It would be a waste of valuable resources to have these churches closed," said Janice Dooner Lynch of the Friends of Our Lady Peace.

Dozens of churches were shuttered in August this year after the Archdiocese decreed that 112 parishes would be merged into 55 new parishes. Our Lady of Peace was closed and merged with St. John the Evangelist. The church has made an appeal to the Vatican.

Lynch and the Friends recently received word from the Vatican that it is still reviewing their case and postponed a decision to Feb. 15, 2016, they said.

In the meantime, the Friends have also asked the Archdiocese to open the church on Dec. 8 for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as a special occasion, since the church is named after Mary, whom the celebration honors.

If the Archdiocese does not reopen the churches to parishioners or use them for shelter, they should be sold "in an ethical way with concern for the poor not for real estate developers or to the highest bidder," Gargamelli said. "Give that land to good to use."

The Archdiocese of New York did not return requests for comment.