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.