MANHATTAN — A dozen Catholic churches in Manhattan and The Bronx could soon be sold now that the Archdiocese of New York officially declared they are no longer sacred sites for worship and can be used for “profane, but not sordid” uses.
Some parishioners, however, are calling on the church to focus instead on using the shuttered buildings in the service of helping the poor.
Most of of the sites on the list have been shuttered since 2015 or so when the Catholic church completed a major restructuring of its parishes, merging many of them together. Now some are also losing their schools, including St. Ann School in Norwood, Visitation School in Kingsbridge and St. Gregory the Great School on the Upper West Side.
Many parishioners, still reeling from losing their churches, were angry that the diocese quietly posted the decrees — which lay the groundwork for the property sales — on June 30, right before the July Fourth weekend when many people were likely out of town, giving them only 10 days to appeal.
A deal is already in place for one of the buildings on the list: Little Italy’s Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz (formerly known as the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix) at 378 Broome St., which is slated to be sold to a real estate developer for more than $7 million, DNAinfo previously reported.
Interest in the church sites is likely mounting, and many expect the properties to fetch big bucks. (A three-story townhouse at 143 W. 87th St. that was operated by the Church of St. Gregory, for instance, recently sold for $4.31 million, according to court documents.)
There are no deals pending for any of the other churches, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese.
“These are churches that were part of merged parishes, and the church buildings are no longer being used,” he said in an email. “Rather than continue to support an unused worship space, the parishes have asked that they be ‘deconsecrated’ so that the parish might consider what to do with the property. Some may use it for other purposes, some may lease it, some may sell it.”
Each parish will determine their building’s use, he noted.
Mercedes Sanchez, a parishioner at the now-shuttered Church of Nativity on Second Avenue in the East Village, which has since merged with the Most Holy Redeemer on East Third Street, said she received an email this month from a representative at an established real estate finance firm inquiring about a possible sale.
Sanchez fought to keep her church open a few years ago, appealing the closure and proposing that the rectory building at 44 Second Ave. be turned into a shrine or chapel in honor of Dorothy Day, the social activist who co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, or a drop-in center where the homeless could pick up mail or take showers. This was especially needed, she said, since the Archdiocese closed the nearby Holy Name Center for Homeless Men to open a theater.
She learned in March that the proposal was denied. (Her current church’s pastor was proposing the Archdiocese build a low-income building at 44 Second Ave., she added.)
Sanchez said she did not have any more fight left in her this time around to appeal the June 30 decree.
“We fought pretty hard over the past two years or so,” Sanchez said. “I’m finally in a better place. I am Catholic. I go to church. It’s about your connection spiritually. But it was very discouraging.”
It is hard for her to see fancy condos and hotels rising around the church that was such a big part of her community growing up.
“When you see the church closed and all of the condos going up in the neighborhood it’s a little overwhelming. … And the Archdiocese is playing a role in the lack of affordable housing,” she said.
Long time residents point to the example of the East Village’s Parish of Mary Help of Christians, which developer Douglas Steiner, owner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard's Steiner Studios, bought in 2012 for a reported $41 million. That project is now an 82-unit condo complex called Steiner East Village, where units currently on the market range from a $2.395 million two-bedroom to a $5.25 million three-bedroom penthouse.
Sanchez was also disappointed about the decree being posted the weekend before a national holiday.
“They're not honest, and for an organization that claims to follow Jesus, I believe their actions are very un-Christian like,” she said. “Most of our ‘team’ — the parishioners I worked with the past couple of years — were away for the weekend. We didn't appeal.”
Felix Cepeda, a parishioner of a closed church in the Castle Hill section of The Bronx (which was not on the list of churches that can now be sold), was critical of the move to allow the other buildings to be sold, especially when so many are being sold for luxury developments, like one expected at Chelsea's Church of St. Vincent de Paul, where a hotelier paid a reported $50 million to the Archdiocese for the church and two other parish properties.
Cepeda has spent the past several months protesting the Archdiocese to compel it to use shuttered churches to offer sanctuary to protect immigrants facing deportation and provide other services to the poor.
While the sale of the buildings is supposed to help the service of the poor, the buildings themselves can help the poor, Cepeda believes, pointing to an example of an abandoned church in Madrid that now operates as a 24-hour a day community center and a place for the homeless to sleep.
“It’s a really cool idea to have homeless people in a place of so much beauty and dignity,” he said.
“A lot of these properties are worth millions, and the Archdiocese needs money,” he said. “I know a lot of that money goes to good causes like Catholic schools and scholarships. But we know the Church has started a fund to pay off [sex abuse claims]. The church’s sins have cost all of us a lot of money.”
At least one of the buildings on the Archdiocese’s list is landmarked: Harlem’s Church of All Saints at East 129th St., at the corner of Madison Avenue. But several others lost bids for historic status, including the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary at 211 East 83rd St, between Second and Third Avenues, on the Upper East Side, which was a hub for the Catholic deaf community.
Still, many of these buildings are significant for social and architectural reasons, Cepeda believes.
“If the Church took time to partner, with other organizations and people, a lot of good could come of it, and instead of destroying these amazing structures, you could keep them alive,” he said. “The city is losing a part of its history, especially buildings built for poor people, mostly by immigrants.”
He continued, “I think the Catholic church does a lot of good work for immigrants, but it could do a lot more. A lot of parishioners are very angry. They feel like the Church is just becoming a real estate company.”