Card. Egan & parish closings redux (updated)

There have been a few interesting developments in the story of Cardinal Egan's conduct in closing Our Lady of Vilnius, a Lithuanian parish in Manhattan. (For background, read my post on the subject and my piece in the March 23 Commonweal. And it can't hurt to read Michael Powell's recent profile of the cardinal in the New York Times, if you're a subscriber.)

The following headline in this morning's Vatican Information Service release caught my eye: "The Pope Receives the President of Lithuania." According to the president, Our Lady of Vilnius came up in conversation. Catholic News Service reports:

Lithuania's president said he personally asked Pope Benedict XVI to intervene to keep a Lithuanian parish in New York open. President Valdas Adamkus met the pope April 28 at the Vatican.

A Vatican statement said the pope and president discussed the importance of Vatican-Lithuanian relations, the contributions of the church to Lithuanian society and the role of Lithuania within the European Union.

But the president's office, in an April 28 statement, said, "President Adamkus also spoke to Pope Benedict XVI about the decision to close Our Lady of Vilnius Roman Catholic Church in New York -- a decision that was very upsetting for the whole of Lithuania since it raised a wave of disappointment among the faithful."

The statement said the president explained to the pope how Lithuanian immigrants had built the church with their own money "to have a place for worship and witness their love and faith in God. With time the church acquired yet another mission: It became a center fostering not only religious belief but also Lithuanian culture and national identity."

"The Holy Father said that he knew about this problem and promised to discuss it with American bishops," the president's statement said.

Today's New York Post also ran a story on this, but it added details about the state of the church itself:

Meanwhile yesterday, parishioner Laima Hood discovered that the pewshad been removed and the altar, stained glass, organ and religiousobjects had been packed up. Zwilling said such steps are normally taken so that the items could be "kept in storage for safekeeping."

I spoke to a member of the parish board of trustees who verified this account. The board member told me that in addition to the removal of the stained glass, altar, organ, pews, and statuary, the paintings on the ceiling of the church had been whitewashed. This is particularly disconcerting to parishioners because they have appealed Egan's decision to the Vatican, and are awaiting response from the Congregation for Clergy. It's one thing to remove objects of artistic and religious value for safekeeping--especially if the building will soon be sold and/or demolished--but why whitewash the ceiling paintings if not to render the space unfit for worship? What will happen if Pope Benedict intervenes, as the president of Lithuania seems to think he will, and Vilnius is reopened?

Update: before and after pictures:

After:

There is another wrinkle: the United States and Lithuania have signed an agreement regarding the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties abroad. From what I understand, some parishioners are under the impression that Vilnius is part of some kind of mutual protection agreement (apart from the linked agreement? I'm not sure). I'm trying to find out whether this is the case, and what legal force such an agreement holds. I'll keep you posted. [Edited according to Joseph's clarification below.]

P.S. The May 4 Commonweal contains a letter to the editor by Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York. He's responding to my piece on Vilnius. If this post wasn't already too long, I'd reproduce it here, along with my response. Maybe later.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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