The archdiocese & the arts: What’s your angle?

Peter Steinfels’s post on CNN’s framing of a report on the multimillion-dollar residences of U.S. archbishops got me thinking about coverage of another story concerning use (and re-use) of church property. Here in New York, the annual International Fringe Festival opens tomorrow, and among the more than twenty venues at which performances will be staged is the new Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center, “a 25,000-square-foot arts center at Bleecker and Elizabeth streets with two theaters and four rehearsal studios available for rent” operated by the Archdiocese of the City of New York.

The quoted passage above comes from a March 16 Wall St. Journal report, a straightforward account focused mainly on the center’s mission as “‘a place to showcase Christian humanism—the true, the good and the beautiful,’" said executive director Msgr. Michael F. Hull.” (Hull later in the story describes himself as “a card-carrying member of MoMA,” the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.) Six paragraphs into the story—after information on artistic director Jessica Bashline and the type of events she’d like to see staged—the reporter notes that the building is located “near the Bowery” and “dates to the early 1920s, when it served as a parish school and center for the Italian-American community. In 1938, it became a shelter for homeless men and remained as such until 2009.” And that paragraph is followed by this one:

"It wasn't viable to run it, and the neighborhood had changed so much," said Msgr. Hull, describing the evolution of the build's use as a reflection of the changing needs of New York. "We served the Italian immigrants, then homeless men, and now the arts community."

The story then gets to the arts-community angle: how expensive it is to find rehearsal and performance space in New York as real estate costs have shot up, how even though Fringe Festival content might “raise the eyebrows of conservative churchgoers” the only caveat from the archdiocese on style and content is that there’s nothing “hateful about one group of people.” Headline of the Journal piece: “A Marriage of Church and Stage.”

Fast-forward to August 3, when the New York Times ran a story concerned less with the cultural center’s mission and performance schedule than the history of that “building near the Bowery” and the community it once served. Headlined “On the Bowery, Questions About the Church’s Shifting Mission,” the piece quotes several people who either worked at or found meals and showers at the former shelter, which was called (a detail not noted in the Journal story) the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men.

The Times story says it still was serving about a hundred people a day, among them, Fred Armour, who “is puzzled by the cultural center”:

Having lived on the streets for five years, Mr. Armour used to rely on Holy Name for taking showers, which he could do early enough to have the rest of the day to look for work. A few other places in the area offer showers, but too late in the day. Instead, he washes himself under the sprinklers at a local park.

Not that long ago, Mr. Armour was struck by the sight of well-dressed people milling about outside the Sheen center.

“It looked like one of those events you’d see at any art center,” he said. “We already have a lot of culture around here. Why is the church joining in with what everybody else is doing around here? Joining the crowd.”

Also quoted, a volunteer at nearby St. Joseph House named Heidi Hynes who “hoped the church might be persuaded to open the [Sheen center] early in the morning so that the homeless could at least shower there.”

“That would be a powerful message to the people in that neighborhood and the visitors to the center about what is Catholic culture, and to know that serving the homeless is at the core of that,” Ms. Hynes said. “The Catholic Church is in a unique position to show people what it really means to love your neighbor.”

Cardinal Dolan’s response to Hynes is included (“The cardinal replied in a letter that ‘the time has come to make a different use’ of the building, but he vowed that the church would continue to provide services to the homeless in Lower Manhattan”), while the head of Catholic Charities notes that the proximity, “right around the corner,” of two other homeless-service organizations was taken into account as “we were phasing out [Holy Name].” The last word of the piece belongs to Hynes, who is reported not only to be making a novena to Dorothy Day, but unsurprised by what’s happening on the Bowery, “in a city where the well-off need not interact with the needy”:

“People who are poor help people who are poor more than rich people do,” she said. “That’s because we live with each other and know each other. Other people think the poor are trying to scam them. That’s the saddest part of the hyper-segregation of this city, that people in need are deemed unworthy.”

And finally, there’s the take from Cardinal Dolan himself, who in a June column in Catholic New York (headline: “The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture”) links the center explicitly to the new evangelization:

Allow me to tell you a little about the center, our hopes and dreams for it, and all the good it can do for the Church. In line with the goal of The New Evangelization, the mission statement of the center is succinct, though all encompassing: The Sheen Center is a forum to highlight the true, the good, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages. Aware of our creation in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Jesus, the Sheen Center aspires to present the heights and depths of human expression in thought and culture, acknowledging that “the glory of God is man fully alive” ….

Dolan also goes back a little farther into the building’s history as part of Our Lady of Loreto Parish, while adding that the center “stands on Elizabeth and Bleecker Streets, now an interesting part of Manhattan where cultural and artistic endeavors are thriving."

In selecting these passages, I’ve done my best to represent them in context—no cherry-picking to make my own point about the decision to establish the cultural center or the processes involved, only an attempt to show how different organizations have chosen to cover it. Readers who’ve seen their neighborhood parish buildings sold to well-endowed private schools or converted into condominiums might feel that in this case, at least, something beneficial is being done with space that was underutilized and expensive to maintain. Those who know that if there are fewer homeless people to see around Bleecker and Elizabeth, it’s not because there are fewer homeless people in New York (where the number of homeless had risen to an all-time high of more than fifty-four thousand by April) but because they’ve been forced to other neighborhoods, might wish that something more in line with Hynes’s proposal could have been done with the space. And those who long ago had already found the intersection of Bleecker and Elizabeth to be an interesting part of the city where, even before the Sheen center was conceived, cultural and artistic endeavors thrived, along with religious, social, civic, and simple neighborly ones, might find something to think about in a question Peter Schjeldahl poses in an item—not about the Sheen center, but about the mixing of money and art—at the New Yorker website today: “At what point does a widely shared yen for aesthetic engagement alter the character of that engagement?”

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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