Beliefnet
The Deacon's Bench

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s dispiriting news about the way Cardinal Egan is reassigning priests in his archdiocese, we have this word that someone is coughing up money — a LOT of money — to save a church:

An anonymous donor has come to the rescue of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in the East Village, saving the building — which has presided over Tompkins Square Park since 1848 — from demolition and making it possible for the structure to be reopened as a parish church.

The Archdiocese of New York announced on Wednesday that a donor had come forward with an “unexpected but very welcome gift” of $20 million after a private meeting with Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York.

The gift includes $10 million to restore the building, at 119 Avenue B; $2 million to establish an endowment for the parish “so that it might best meet the religious and spiritual needs of the people living in the community”; and $8 million to support St. Brigid’s School and other Catholic schools in need.

“We are ecstatic,” said Edwin Torres, 50, the leader of a group called the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s, who had been a member of the parish for 25 years. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. This came as a complete surprise. It blew us away.”

Cardinal Egan said in a statement: “This magnificent gift will make it possible for Saint Brigid’s Church to be fittingly restored with its significant structural problems properly addressed. The two additional gifts, to create an endowment for the parish and to support the parish school, are a powerful testament to the donor’s goodness and understanding. He has my heartfelt gratitude, as I recently told him at a meeting in my residence.”

The church was built by Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine in the 1840s, and it has been a mainstay in a neighborhood that has gone through momentous changes.

In 1991, the pastor of the church and two other clergymen were arrested on disorderly conduct charges when they crossed police lines to deliver food to protesters holed up in an apartment near Tompkins Square Park, which was the site of clashes between protesters and the police. In 1995, Pope John Paul II visited St. Brigid’s School — which was already suffering from declining enrollment — during a pastoral visit to the United States.

The church’s main building closed in 2001 because of structural problems, and the final Mass, in the basement of the Catholic school next door, was held in 2004. Despite fund-raising efforts, protests by parishioners and lamentations by Mary Gordon, a novelist and memoirist who teaches at Barnard College, the church was scheduled to be closed.

Supporters of the church filed two lawsuits, one in 2005 and another in 2006. The first suit was dismissed, but the second has wound its way through the courts. The second lawsuit asserted, among other things, that the archdiocese had not properly obtained demolition permits; that the archdiocese had not properly convened a meeting of the parish’s board of trustees to approve the closing; and that, when the board finally met, it violated a state law that requires that trustees make their decisions in “support and maintenance” of the house of worship.

In July 2006, a day after demolition work began, a State Supreme Court justice issued a temporary restraining order halting the work. But in February 2007, the lawsuit was dismissed, a ruling that was affirmed on appeal. In January of this year, the plaintiffs, appealing yet again, got permission to bring the case to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Marisa A. Marinelli, a partner at the law firm of Holland & Knight who has been representing the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s since 2006, described Wednesday’s announcement as a “very positive development,” but said that the committee members had to learn more details and have a discussion before deciding whether to drop their pending appeal.

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