[BRIEF NOTE] On the end of New York’s Church of St. Vincent de Paul
David Dunlap’s New York Times post describing the tumult surrounding the impending closure of Manhattan’s Church of St. Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic church that has apparently been a nucleus for New York City’s Francophone community since the mid-19th century, interests me. The transition of the Church from a specifically French to a more broadly Francophone tradition has parallels elsewhere, distantly here in Toronto with the intermittant talk of designating a French/Francophone neighbourhood. Similarly, the tensions between the parishoners who want to keep their church intact and the church hierarchy that wants to rationalize institutions is also noteworthy.
Thoughts, New Yorkers and others?
“In this great city, where the Irish and German Catholics have recoiled from no sacrifice to have their own churches and priests, how is it that the French, so famous for the faith of their fathers, alone remain indifferent?” [Charles Auguste Marie Joseph, the bishop of Nancy and Toul in France] asked. “How, in fact, can this nationality be long preserved in a foreign land without the powerful bond of religion?”
That is exactly what some parishioners are asking today as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York prepares to close the Church of St. Vincent de Paul at 123 West 23rd Street — the very church that emerged 170 years ago in response to the bishop’s exhortation — and merge the French-speaking parish with the Church of St. Columba at 343 West 25th Street. No date has been set.
How will an unusually diverse body of Catholics from France, Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Switzerland, Togo and elsewhere maintain their connection with one another and with the mother church? What will keep them from dispersing, even if accommodated at St. Columba?
“The consequences are so grave, so overwhelming, they don’t even want to hear about it,” said Sylvestre Kouadio, a 51-year-old Ivorian taxi driver from the Bronx who directs the choir at St. Vincent. “The church has become a second home, a home away from home for Africans who speak French. This is the anchor.”
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St. Vincent was identified in 2007 as one of 21 parishes that would be closed or lose full parochial status. “The decision to merge the parishes was reached because of the small congregation at St. Vincent de Paul, leading to the inability of the parish to sustain and support itself; the deteriorating physical condition of the building; and the close proximity of St. Columba,” said Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the archdiocese.
One factor delaying the merger has been the question of “how best to continue to provide pastoral care to the French-speaking population that currently worships at St. Vincent de Paul,” Mr. Zwilling said. French and French Creole services are offered in Manhattan at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on the Upper West Side and at the Church of St. Jean Baptiste on the Upper East Side.
Olga Simon Statz, a leader in efforts to save St. Vincent de Paul.Because of the impending closing, the archdiocese has purposefully not repaired water damage caused when the church roof was breached during Tropical Storm Irene last August. The out-of-bounds pews and crumbling plaster prompted an urgent renewal of a six-year-old preservation drive by a nonprofit group called Save St. Vincent de Paul.
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Admirers of St. Vincent and its history have been requesting a hearing by the Landmarks Preservation Commission since 2006. They include President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who said in a 2009 letter to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that he was surprised the city had not paid greater attention to St. Vincent — “un élément important de l’identité française et de la présence francophone au cœur de Manhattan.”
However, the commission’s staff has determined that St. Vincent does not merit a formal public hearing. “Our decision not to recommend its designation to the full commission was based on a careful review of the building’s architectural and historical qualities,” Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman, said. “We found that the existing facade, a neo-Classical facade that replaced the original Romanesque Revival facade in 1939, was designed by a little-known architect and lacked architectural distinction.” The original church was by Henry Engelbert; the renovation was by Anthony J. De Pace.
[. . .]
“Every parish has five trustees: the archbishop, the vicar general, the pastor and two lay parishioners,” Mr. Zwilling said. “The courts have upheld the right of the archdiocese to determine where parishes will be located, and which will be open and closed.” The pastor of St. Vincent, the Rev. Gerald E. Murray, deferred to the archdiocese when approached by this reporter on Monday.