FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Was the wrong church closed? Parishioners of Our Lady of Peace, New York City, will appeal a negative decision received this week from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.
Two years after filing an appeal against the merger of their parish and subsequent closure of their landmark church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, parishioners of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace in Manhattan received a rejection letter from the Vatican, upholding the canonic merger of their parish with the parish of of Saint John the Evangelist. Then they learned, as published in the National Catholic Reporter, that Cardinal Dolan is contemplating selling the chancery building of the Archdiocese of New York. The lobby of the 20-story chancery building is where the Church of Saint John the Evangelist is located.
The Vatican’s decision was issued in the form of a decree by an administrative body, the Congregation for the Clergy, which conducted a documentary review process, known as a hierarchical recourse in the parlance of the Roman Catholic Church. Although reliant on canon law procedures, the Congregation for Clergy is not in itself a court of law, nor does not it reveal its communications with bishops to parishioners during the process.
During the past two years, since the beginning of the recourse process, the Congregation issued five extensions of their review. In April 2016, at the Congregation’s direction, Cardinal Dolan revoked the 2014 decree of merger in order to make parish boundary revisions and changes consistent with previous decrees issued by the Congregation to other appealing parishes. Then he issued a new decree of merger of the parishes Saint John the Evangelist and Our Lady of Peace. Parishioners of Our Lady of Peace appealed for the second time to the Congregation for Clergy.
"We are disappointed and dissatisfied with the decision,” said Janice Dooner Lynch, one of several signatories who has served as contact for the Vatican. “We submitted very strong evidence that Our Lady of Peace Church should be reopened for weekly Masses and the sacraments. Our next step is to appeal to the Apostolic Signatura, the Supreme Court of the Vatican, and pray that they will see the merits of our case.”
Our Lady of Peace, located on prime real estate on East 62nd Street between Second and Third Avenues, is within the Treadwell Farm Historic District, designated as a landmark in 1967. Its cultural and historic significance garnered the support of many public figures and local politicians, including Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, New York Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright, New York City Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos, and Public Advocate Letitia James, who wrote letters to Pope Francis, Cardinal Dolan, and other Vatican officials. Community organizations such as Friends of the Upper East Side, the East 60s Neighborhood Association, and Historic Park Avenue also wrote letters of support to the Vatican.
“We are disappointed and surprised by the Vatican response,” said Julianne Bertagna, President of the Treadwell Farm Historic District. “Our Lady of Peace Church is an integral part of Treadwell Farm’s historic architectural fabric and social history. This rare Victorian Gothic church is an architectural gem in one of the first neighborhoods designated by NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission recognizing its historic, cultural and architectural significance. It is also listed as part of the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. Furthermore, Our Lady of Peace Church has provided essential social services to the Eastside and a vibrant community of faith for more than a century.”
While Saint John the Evangelist in the chancery building was decreed by Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be the new parish location, the church of Our Lady of Peace is supposed to be open for public and private prayer, and Masses are supposed to be celebrated on special occasions - notably the feast day of the patron saint, the anniversary of the dedication of church, and parishioners’ funerals.
But parishioners found that even these occasions were difficult to obtain by request, as a series of denials were issued by Monsignor Douglas Mathers, pastor of Saint John the Evangelist, the Cardinal, and other clergy within the archdiocese, and prevented parishioners from celebrating a patronal feast or anniversary of the dedication inside the church. The church was only open for three funerals during 2016, but the most recent request, for a parishioner who died the day after Christmas, was denied. The church remains shuttered. There is no accommodation to open it for public or private prayer.
Parishioners contend that the archdiocese has not acted in good faith. In June 2016, the archdiocese filed a civil merger at the New York Supreme Court, unknown to any of the parishioners or former trustees of Our Lady of Peace, before the canonic merger was decided by Rome. The exhibits they supplied to the court, which are a matter of public record, were signed by trustees of Saint John the Evangelist on behalf of both parishes.
At the same time, on June 17, 2016, Bishop John O’Hara announced to a small group of parishioners that the archdiocese was engaged in discussions and negotiations to sell the church building to another Christian faith, before the merger question was decided by the Vatican. But as long as the appeals process continues at the Apostolic Signatura, there can be no sale of the church property.
The parish of Our Lady of Peace was formed in 1918 as a personal or national parish for Italian immigrants, whose many descendants still belong to the church. The parish was one of 55 that were chosen to be merged as part of the largest downsizing in the history of the Archdiocese of New York in November 2014, administered by an outside consultancy, The Reid Group.
Parishioners argued that the parish was solvent, dynamic, and growing at a rate of seven percent a year. A wealthy parish, its members raised $450,000 during the Great Recession, to renovate the interior and restore the artwork in 2008-2009. They formed a non-profit 501c3 organization, Friends of Our Lady of Peace, Inc., and raised more than $500,000 six months after the church was closed in order to demonstrate to the Vatican that they had could maintain the church for ten years.
“We have yet to be given a sufficient reason for the closure of our church,” said Shane Dinneen, President of the Friends of Our Lady of Peace, Inc. “Our Lady of Peace was one of the few churches in Manhattan with growing attendance, positive cash flow, and no liabilities. What’s more, Our Lady of Peace was a vibrant community of faith that welcomed all through her doors. Each day since the church has been closed, parishioners have faithfully gathered outside at the steps to pray the rosary in the hope that it might be reopened – for 530 consecutive days they’ve done this. For their sake, and on behalf of all the parishioners of Our Lady of Peace, we intend to appeal this decision.”
Parishioners have held prayer services and processions, and continued community outreach, collecting food for City Harvest, toys, coats for New York Cares, and toiletries for the Veterans hospital. They have mounted a social media campaign with more than 13,500 followers on Facebook and Twitter. But it is on the street at night during the murmur of rosary prayers, that emotions are most palpable.
“As Rosary captain, I see the hurt and anger of those displaced by the decision to shutter Our Lady of Peace,” said Jessica Bede, a life-long parishioner who also serves the Archdiocese of New York as a trustee of the Manhattan Regional Schools. “When we read of the expenditures by the archdiocese on lobbyists, public relations firms, lawyers, and the most recent reference to selling the chancery building, it seems that the business of the Church has worked contrary to its basic needs. The focus should be on celebrating with the faithful rather than being at odds with them. We look to Rome for a more positive outcome.”
To contact the individuals quoted in this release:
Janice Dooner Lynch Mobile (646) 244-9670 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Julianne Bertagna Mobile (347) 675-8775 Email email@example.com
Shane Dinneen Mobile (609) 661-4688 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Bede Mobile (917) 754-2100 Email email@example.com