Albany diocese bars landmark church status

Rules regarded as `encumbrance' to Catholic mission

March 11, 2001|By Jacquelyn Swearingen | Jacquelyn Swearingen,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The Albany Roman Catholic Diocese has quietly issued a policy prohibiting parishes from seeking historic designations for their church buildings, a move that has angered some parishes struggling to remain open.

Officials confirmed the existence of the policy, but would not say when it went into effect.

"If we ever decide to alter or demolish a building, we don't believe any governmental authority should have the right to override the church's decision," said Noel Olsen, director of the diocese's Office of Real Property.

The policy has pitted some congregations struggling to keep their historic parishes open against a diocese trying to shift dwindling numbers of priests from shrinking parishes in cities or the countryside to growing suburbs.

Preservationists bewildered

The move has also bewildered some preservationists who say religious organizations have some responsibility for the fate of historic churches.

"I think they are responsible for being a part of the process, for seeing that the buildings in their present condition don't end up contributing to the further demise of a neighborhood," said Elizabeth Griffith, the executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation.

The Catholic Church here can't support parishes with dwindling enrollments and still adequately fund programs for the poor in cities and the countryside, said Sister Kathleen Turley, chancellor for planning and pastoral services at the diocese.

That is true in many cities. In recent years dwindling inner-city congregations and a shortage of priests has forced the Catholic Church to close urban parishes.

The diocese's policy makes it nearly impossible for an individual parish or diocesan organization to apply for designation as a state or national historic landmark.

Church's view

"By its very nature, the church is called to serve the religious and social mission of its faith community," according to the diocesan policy statement. "Any encumbrance, economic or otherwise, which would impair the ability to serve the mission, is to be discouraged."

In the past the diocese has drawn fire for the its handling of historically and architecturally significant churches closed by the diocese.

Listing a church on a state or national register does not place restrictions on how that building can be used or even whether it can be demolished. But if the owners apply for funding, such as money from the Sacred Sites Program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, they must then enter into an agreement that the building will not be torn down for about 20 years, according to Kent Lustbader, director of the program.

Other religious organizations, including the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, have been applauded by preservationists for seeking landmark status and grants to restore their old churches.

The Albany Roman Catholic Diocese has undertaken major preservation projects -- most notably at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, which is listed on both the state and national registers of historic places. That status most likely helped the diocese secure an $800,000 grant from the state toward an ambitious $16 million restoration plan.

The tension between the diocese and aging parishes has surfaced most visibly at Our Lady of Angels, a graceful church in the small Adirondack town of Whitehall, where generations of parishioners have received their first Communion, baptized their children and had their funeral Masses celebrated.

Since early last year a group of its former members have protested the diocese's decision to close the 130-year-old church. They contend that their pleas to Bishop Howard Hubbard and other diocesan officials to preserve the church in the small Adirondack town have been met with silence or rebukes.

`It's un-Christian'

"I think we have been treated very shabbily. It's un-Christian," said Marilyn Ahern Daly, one of the group's leaders.

"It is difficult. What we think we want is not always the best for us," said Sister Turley. "It's a struggle of faith and where God is calling."

In 1999 the group from Our Lady of Angels sought to have the church listed on the state register of historic places, in the hopes that would make it easier to win public and private preservation grants.

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