Historic N.Y. church may close its doors

Amid falling attendance, city's archdiocese is reallocating resources

March 28, 2004|By John J. Goldman | John J. Goldman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - St. Ann's Armenian Catholic Cathedral stands apart amid the Greenwich Village bustle of trendy shops and university students. For 157 years, it has served the faithful, through the Civil War, the Great Depression and New York's brush with bankruptcy.

But many people here fear that the valuable real estate is about to fall victim to shrinking attendance and the budgetary crisis facing the Archdiocese of New York.

At 2.5 million members, this is the nation's second-largest archdiocese, after Los Angeles. And like others across the United States, it is reallocating resources - which will mean closing some parishes and consolidating others. St. Ann's is one of those likely targets.

Growth in the Catholic community has been in the suburbs and counties north of New York City, not in Manhattan, where one-quarter of the archdiocese's 414 parishes are situated.

A spokesman said church officials have not made a final decision about St. Ann's fate. But inside the gray stone Gothic Revival building, where thousands of people have practiced a parade of religions, the specter of the padlock looms large.

During its 157 years, St. Ann's has been a Baptist church, a Protestant church, a synagogue, a Roman Catholic parish and, most recently, the headquarters of the U.S. and Canadian leader of the Armenian Rite.

Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy's sacred sites program, said any 11th-hour attempt to preserve the building through a historical designation is likely to fail because the archdiocese could claim financial hardship.

"We are deciding what to do with the building. Selling it is a possibility," church spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.

"Do we need to open new churches in some places? Do we need to close or merge churches or parishes in other parts of the archdiocese?" Zwilling said. "Are there other creative ways we could use the resources we have, including our people, in a more effective way?"

Friedman said that as real estate values have skyrocketed in parts of Manhattan, developers are approaching churches to sell buildings and property - often with plans that would allow them to stay on the site, albeit in scaled-down quarters.

St. Ann's stands in the East Village, across from New School University's modern brick dormitory. Apartment rentals in the area have risen greatly in recent years.

Some parishioners speculate that the archdiocese could receive $16 million for the St. Ann's property, which includes a parish house and a parking lot. The potential buyers, Friedman and others said, could include New York University and the New School University, major educational institutions in the area.

Most days the church, with its stone steeple and ornate wrought-iron railings, is locked. Masses are celebrated only on weekends. The parish house, paint peeling, stands empty.

There were once Masses in Latin and Spanish here. Now, even most of the Armenian parishioners have left, attending religious services in Brooklyn instead.

But others are putting up a fight. They have fasted, picketed St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and started a Web site condemning Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of New York, for considering closing such a historic church.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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