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The vigil ends badly.

On Sunday, about twenty parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels began their vigil to protest the decision of the Archdiocese of New York to close the parish. (Read the New York Times story here.) The Times reports on its conclusion:

Six women were led away in handcuffs from an East Harlem church bythe police last night, hours after protesting parishioners declaredthat they would not leave until the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of NewYork dropped plans to close it.

The six women, allparishioners, were given summons for trespassing, the police said. Theywere part of a group that had grown to almost 40 last night to opposethe planned closing of Our Lady Queen of Angels, on East 113th Streetbetween Second and Third Avenues.

An e-mail from an eyewitness fills out the story in more detail. Read it all:

I am sorry to report that the vigil at Our Lady Queen of Angels was stopped last night shortly after 11PM. We are still piecing together the complete chain of events, but as an eyewitness I can attest to the following:

A press conference was held outside the church at 2PM, during which the locks on the church lavatory were surreptitiously changed. Several large men unknown to the parishioners appeared in the church around 7PM. These men turned out to be hired by the Archdiocese as security agents. The parishioners called the police because they did not know who these unknown men were.

All the doors of the church were locked by the security agents, and anyone trying to enter the church whenever the side door was opened was forcibly shoved back out into the street, including me. Police outside stood by while this occurred.

Priests from the Archdiocese entered the church at approx. 9PM and addressed the crowd of about 30 parishioners, including men, women and children, asking everyone to leave. The priests then retreated to the sacristy, and did not appear again. At approx. 9:30PM, Carmen Villegas, chairperson of Our Lady Queen of Angels, managed to open one outside door. Several supporters rushed in, along with many members of the media and camera crews.

The camera crews were physically forced to leave the church shortly thereafter by the security agents. There was scuffling in the aisles, and some of the news crews were nearly shoved to the floor. (I am still trying to determine whether all this took place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.)

A police lieutenant and two other officers entered the church, and began to talk with a City Councilwoman who had entered the church when the doors were opened at 9:30PM, and then with the priests sequestered in the sacristy. In the church, the parishioners continued to pray the rosary and sing hymns.

Soon the police captain from the precinct joined the group. For the next 90 minutes, the police shuttled back and forth between the parishioners in the pews, and the priests in the sacristy. Negotiations went back and forth. The lawyer for the parishioners arrived on the scene, but was refused access to the church. At the end of this process, the police said that all parishioners had to vacate the church by 11:30PM, or everyone would be arrested.

Carmen Villegas and the other leaders of the parishioners considered all the available options, but it was clear that the police were going to back the claim by the Archdiocese that it was the owner of the property, that the parishioners were trespassing on church property, and that the parishioners would have to leave for face arrest for illegal trespassing. So the decision became: How do we best conclude this protest?

The decision was made to have six parishioners agree to be arrested and taken out of the church in hand-cuffs, so that all the media outside could see what was being done. All other protesters were to leave the church first.

When we left the church at approx. 11:15PM, the scene outside was surreal, camera crews and trucks everywhere. Some 15 minutes later, the six hand-cuffed parishioners were led single file down the driveway of the church, as a crowd of perhaps 100 supporters chanted Save our church. The media rushed forward as they were being loaded into a police van in front of the church, and the arrested parishioners managed to shout brief comments to the press. Some of the children of the arrested parishioners were crying as their mothers were loaded into the vans. The parishioners were taken to the precinct on 102nd Street, where they were booked and then released.

These are the facts as best I can recall them.

In the end, the Archdiocese asserted, and the police backed, a claim to be the owner of real estate, and refused to acknowledge the rights of the parishioners to conduct a peaceful prayer vigil in their own church. The Archdiocese resorted to intimidation, threats of force, and invitations to police to enter the sanctuary of the church in order to suppress the vigil through threat of arrest.

I am trying to understand the true implications of these events. It is always about faith, but had I not seen these events with my own eyes, I never would have believed this could happen inside a Catholic church.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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DOn't forget, Grant, this is property held in trust by the archdiocese for the benefit of the parishoners, or at least that is what the archidocese will argue if it ever declares bankruptcy in order to try to keep the property from being seized by creditors.

This is certain, I am sure, to provoke some angry responses but I think it is something that needs to be said. I am not saying that the various dioceses have not made mistakes in handling closings and other downsizing measures, but I think far more blame should rest on the heads of the parishioners than they a willing to accept.Living in Boston, where the whole church closing issue has taken on a life of its own, we weekly hear wronged parishioners I will use the word whine about their parish closing. Its always about their memories I was married here, my child was baptized here etc. First, this cloying attachment to a building ought to give them pause. It borders in some cases on idolatry. More importantly, we all need to look at what is happening and start asking some tough questions.How many of our own children are no longer in the Church?What have we done to catechize and evangelize families and friends?What have we done to encourage vocations?Its easy to complain about nasty bishops and priests and who owns what, but the bottom line is that if these groups had put as much effort in evangelization even in their immediate families as they are in sit-ins and law suits, we might not be in this situation.

It's worth noting, as the Daily News story does, that there are three other parishes within walking distance of this church.

The closing of schools and parishes can be laid directly at the feet of parishioners who are no longer procreating and no longer practising their faith, also, at the of the catechetical establishment for utterly destroying the faith of the last few generations.....just another vestige of Church "progressives."

Austin:I do not totally disregard your comment, but the closings of many parishes can be greatly attributed to:the decline in specifically ethnic urban parishes, especially due the suburban migration carried out by all ethnicities that has occurred since the end of World War II. Plus, parish costs are up. Priests get paid decently now. Church staffers receive health insurance as they deserve.Both greater evangelization and an increase in vocations could change things, but it is simply expensive to operate multiple parishes within a short distance from each other.

I thought we had just discussed civility in discourse (re the Edward's bloggers and WD) and Austin takes a terribly oversimplified shot at a problem.I;m told the parish reorganization in New York was, in general, better handles than in Boston and that the Diocse had learned vfrom its heavy-handed padlocking of St. Thomas the apostle in harlem a while back.Apparently not. The issue here is first not one of right but of doing the right thing - using thuggery, if the report is beleivable, is hardly the way of Jesus to get things done.Beyond that, there is also the question of do parishes need to have a priest there regularly? In large metropolitan areas where I think older folks( at least) still identify themselves by which parish(as opposed to neighborhod they came from_), is there a need for more sensitivity in approaching these matters -especially if they occur in poor neighborhooods about to be gentrified?

Any issue that mixes emotion with economics is a tough one, especially when faith is added to the equation, but I'm sure we can all agree that the closing of a parish is lamentable, not only because the sanctuary light indicating the presence of divinity will be extinguished, but also because a potent symbol of Christianity will disappear from a neighborhood. Even many of the non-Catholics in my old neighborhood missed the stilling of the Angelus chimes when our parish church was closed, not because of the call to prayer that the chimes were for parishioners, but because of the passing of a timegiver that made them pause and take note of the day. While God is omnipresent even in the absence of a building clearly demarcated as a parish church, it remains a very sad event when such a symbol of our faith is visible no more.

This is a tough one. Should the Cardinal have gone to speak with the parishioners? I don't know. But the reality is parishes have to close. TBefore the configuration, the borough of Manhattan had more than 100 parishes. The population of practicing Catholics is just not there to support this many congregations (and buildings). Tears and anger were to be expected. I would anticipate more of it to come.

A sad incident within the sadder reality of parish closings. But sad events can also be exploited for other agendas. Today's Boston Globe reports:"John Moynihan, spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, said his organization has been heavily involved in organizing New York parishes, since a long list of proposed closings was announced there last spring."Our affiliate in New York called all the parishes on the preliminary list," Moynihan said. "We told them that if they would like to protest, we have some experience with this."He said that Voice of the Faithful worked particularly closely with the two churches where parishioners launched vigils and were thwarted last weekend, helping them make practical preparations for what were expected to be long occupations.Borre said the Council of Parishes, Voice of the Faithful, and several organizations that seek to reform the Catholic Church from within are discussing how they can cooperate to help local parishes resist closure orders from the church hierarchy. Some of them plan to hold a public event outside the now-closed Our Lady Queen of Angels on Feb. 25."

What is the other agenda?

"Should the Cardinal have gone to speak with the parishioners?"Of course not! Austin, who seems to be all-knowing, tells us why it would be a waste of the Most High Exalted Prince Cardina's precious and Royal Timel: " (they) no longer procreating and no longer practising their faith."The new matra of the 21st century must be to "pray, pay, obey and s**ew"?

I guess i'd still like to hear more on closing poor parishes in the inner city, where they provide much needed social glue but may not have balanced budgets.

While it's certainly sad when a parish closes, the parishioners must realize that they are part of a larger church. Yes, it's no doubt painful to lose a building with so many memories, but to make the venerable old building equivalent to the living Church certainly runs the risk of idolatry.At the same time, it is incumbent on diocesan officials not to merely hide behind the secular law and send in police. Some dioceses have handled parish closings with great sensitivity, allowing for a period of grieving with special liturgies and prayer services that allow for sharing of memories, much as one might do at a funeral vigil. At such events they have also included the pastor and parishioners of the new parish the old one has been consolidated into, to talk to the people, welcome them to their communities, and to tell them about the community they will soon become a part of. At some parishes absorbing the closed parish, there have been welcoming activities and acknowledgements designed to smooth the painful transition.For a few dozen elderly people to insist that the archdiocese pay to maintain their church building and staff it with clergy and laity at the expense of larger parishes where there is another church down the street does, to me, appear somewhat selfish. It makes me wonder what their concept of Church is -- their building, their pastor and the pope? I have yet to hear of any growing, vibrant parish that's been closed by any diocese -- only those where pastors have allowed parishes to become inwardly-focused social clubs. "To those who have much, more will be given, and to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away."

The contrary to that is that there are sparsely attended parishes that remain open because they support themselves and are still able to send money into the chancery. They really should be closed.Austin Rose should know that closing of churches is mainly due to shifting populations. It has nothing to due with cathechetics. Nice piling on, though. In Hopewell Junction, New York, for example, in the Northern part of the Arch-diocese they are building new churches which are filled. The main reason is they are solid financially but the evangelization still leaves a lot to be desired. In Bronxville, New York the evangelization is just as tepid while the coffers are good. There are a few more Knights of Malta, however.

If a sparsely attended parish supports itself I don't see why it should close, especially if parish members contribute to the church's mission in their neighborhood. Part of the problem of being an institutional church is having an operational model superimposed on every single unit. Smaller churches can exhibit more spiritual life than larger ones, and a small community can often be much better directed towards accomplishing worthy goals. I am convinced that there is probably some "golden number" of church members that is large enough to keep the church afloat but small enough so that individual members don't suffer from the anomie that is clearly present in many larger parishes. As to the current controversy, it's perfectly understandable that parish members don't want to change. No one does. The solution is to make the transition as painless as it can be, and I doubt arresting parish members will accomplish that. I also recall that many members of some of these parishes are convinced that they are being closed because of the value of their property holdings. Whether true or not, once that kind of notion becomes prevalent, there's so little trust between the opposing parties that it's probably impossible to resolve differences amicably.

Barbara, I don't object to a parish which is small staying open as long as there is a viable community there. What I am referring to are those parishes which have no such community but have certain fund raisers that enable them to stay open.

So the archdiocese asserted its claim of ownership of the parish property.And Jesus sent forth his disciples to spread the Good News and to stay in people's HOMES.Two thousand years ago, the disciples were guests. Today, their successors own the real estate.How far we have come, and how much relationships have changed!Sad.

I also wanted to comment on the concept of being devoted to a building. This is uncharitable, more likely unthinking. Think of your own house or the house you grew up in, how you would have felt if you had been forced to move. It's not that the building was more important than your family, it's that it is the most tangible expression of the history of shared affection and memories that took place within its walls, and in the case of a church, there is a well-founded fear that the history will not live on, let alone thrive, in a new location. Surely this is a reason for compassion for the mostly elderly parishioners who do not have a world of time in which to create something new.

To give an idea of the relevant geography involved here are Google directions from Our Lady Queen of Angels to one nearby church:From: Our Lady Queen of Angels226 E 113th StNew York, NY 10029 To: St. Ann 312 E 110th StNew York, NY 10029 1. Head southeast on E 113th St toward 2nd Ave 289 ft 2. Turn right at 2nd Ave 0.1 mi 1 min 3. Turn left at E 110th St 118 ft 1 min If one doesn't like St. Ann's, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is about the same distance in the other direction at 448 East 116th St. These are very short Manhattan blocks.

After saying, above, that parish closings were "sad events," Robert Imbelli added, "but sad events can also be exploited for other agendas." Its not clear what he meant by that. Grant Gallicho asked him, in the following post, "what is the other agenda?" That's a fair question. Id add another: where is the exploiting here? I hope Fr. Imbelli will reply to both questions.For those who want to see the Boston Globe story he referred to, its at

I am the eye-witness who gave the first account of these events, and I reach out to all who responded. Understand that this is not about bricks but about people, not about the next available fast-food outlet for faith, but about people who have prayed together, cried together and stayed together for not just years, but decades. Of course they are attached to the building. Who is not? But they are more attached to one another. And with one another, they decided, hope against hope, to fight to see if their faith family could survive. They first came to us in the spring of 2006, telling us that they were on the list, telling us that they were slated to close. We listened, and we were mightily impressed. They told us that they went through their neighborhood knocking on doors, and iinviting people to come to their church. Talk about evangelization! They appealed, presenting a financial plan that was refused. And when the final list came out, they were heartbroken. No question, there are churches within walking distance. But they did not want to see their faith family die. And so they appealed for help. Voice of the Faithful responded. In any human endeavor, multiple agendas may be at play. But our agenda was to support faith families that wanted to live on. We did not oppose all the closings. We agree with all those who say that the time does come for everyone to move on. But in East Harlem, we found a faith family that was strong, vibrant , and eager to carry on. Surrounded by Pentecostal churches in every direction, they felt they had a job to do. And they decided on their own to undertake a peaceful prayer vigil, in the hope that the Archdiocese would at the very least respect the fact that you should not kill off a faith community without being absolutely sure there is no viable alternative. What they got in response were anonymous security agents who may or may not have been armed. What they got for sure was an invasion of police on the night of Monday, Feb. 12. The police did the very best they could, and they are to be commended. They tried to negotiate between those of us praying on our knees in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and the representatives of the Archdiocese cowering in the sacristy, too afraid to come back out after their initial order to leave the premises to dialogue with the parishioners. Even New York landlords give their tenants one day in court. The people of Our Lady Queen of Angels did not even ask for that... they simply asked for an opportunity to talk, and perhaps to suggest that of all the decisions published in the archdiocesan newspaper on Jan. 19, this one decision might be revisited. Because one should be absolutely certain before one destroys a faith family. One should feel there is no other alternative.

Being from another area where churches are many and close together, I've also experienced the closing and consolidation of parishes. It is sad. It's sad because the impression is that the first parishes to close are in the poorer neighborhoods where the presence of a Catholic community could do a lot of good. Meanwhile, the wealthier suburban parishes are growing and our demographics become more homogenous.The issues of how best to maintain and grow a diverse Catholic population and how best to support the ecnomically disadvantaged areas are ones that definitely need more public discourse.Having said that, when the time comes to leave the building, leave the building. Ignoring the directive to leave and remaining to kneel in the church is not an invitation to talk and discuss a compromise. Such action issues a challenge and while I can think of a hundred better ways the diocese could have responded, let's also recognize that the parishioners who stayed in protest did so because they wanted things to go their way. The fact that the situation escalated to this level is a failure on both sides.Mr. Piderit, your faith community has not been "killed" unless everyone you know has decided to stop speaking to each other now that the building is closed. Take your faith family down the street to the other parish and help them build it into a community that can support itself so this doesn't have to happen again. Gather in one another's homes and continue to pray together. Find a space to hold a regular Communion service (which doesn't require a priest) and attend Mass together at the other church.You will all survive and if you concentrate on the connection that exists between each other in spite of the building you're in, you'll not only survive, you'll flourish.

Apparently, folks are not ready to move on yet.Not only are the heavy handed actions of the NY Archdiocese in closing the church detailed by Francis Pederit(above) in the new VOTF bulletin (on line today), there is the question about the whole process raised again - viz. were all parts of the family of God involved in the decision making? And what were the criteria?The issue will continue for some time now I suspect and the discussion might be helpful actually.

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