Historic N.Y. Church May Close Doors

Los Angeles Times , CA
March 27 2004

Historic N.Y. Church May Close Doors

Valuable real estate and decreasing attendance threaten St. Ann’s in
Greenwich Village.

By John J. Goldman, Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK – St. Ann’s Armenian Catholic Cathedral stands apart amid
the Greenwich Village bustle of trendy shops and university students.
For 157 years, it has served the faithful, through the Civil War, the
Great Depression and New York’s brush with bankruptcy.

But many here fear the valuable real estate is about to fall victim
to shrinking attendance and the budgetary crisis facing the
Archdiocese of New York.

At 2.5 million members, this is the nation’s second-largest
archdiocese. And like others across the country, it is in the process
of reallocating resources – which will mean closing some parishes and
consolidating others. St. Ann’s is one of those likely targets.

Studies show that growth in the Roman Catholic community has been in
the suburbs and counties north of New York City, not in Manhattan,
where a quarter of the archdiocese’s 414 parishes are located.

A spokesman said church officials have not made a final decision
about St. Ann’s fate. But inside the gray stone Gothic Revival
building, where thousands have practiced a parade of religions, the
specter of the padlock looms large.

During its 157 years, St. Ann’s has been a Baptist church, a
Protestant church, a synagogue, a Catholic parish and, most recently,
the headquarters of the U.S. and Canadian leader of the Armenian

“You could almost feel the generations that had gone before you,”
said Olivia Fitzsimons, who has attended Mass at the church for 20
years. “If those walls could talk… It is very sad.”

Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s
sacred sites program, said any eleventh-hour attempt to preserve the
building through a historical designation likely would fail, because
the archdiocese could claim financial hardship.

“We are deciding what to do with the building. Selling it is a
possibility,” church spokesman Joseph Zwilling said. “The primary
thing we are looking at is where are the Catholic people today, and
where will they be in the future.

“Do we need to open new churches in some places? Do we need to close
or merge churches or parishes in other parts of the archdiocese?”
Zwilling said. “Are there other creative ways we could use the
resources we have – including our people – in a more effective way?”

Friedman said that as real estate values have skyrocketed in parts of
Manhattan, developers are approaching churches to sell buildings and
property – often with plans that would allow them to stay on the
site, albeit in scaled-down quarters.

St. Ann’s stands in the East Village, across from New School
University’s modern brick dormitory. Apartment rentals in the area
have risen dramatically in recent years.

Some parishioners speculate the archdiocese could receive $16 million
for the St. Ann’s property, which includes a parish house and a
parking lot. The potential buyers, Friedman and others said, could
include New York University and the New School University, major
educational institutions in the area.

Most days the church, with its stone steeple and ornate wrought-iron
railings, remains locked. Masses are held only on weekends. The
parish house, paint peeling, stands empty.

There once were Masses in Latin and Spanish here. Now, even most of
the Armenian parishioners have left, attending religious services in
Brooklyn instead.

But others are putting up a fight. They have fasted, picketed St.
Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and launched a website condemning
Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York, for considering
closing the church.

“Culturally, this church has been a place of worship for different
kinds of people,” said Roz Li, an architect who still goes to Mass at
St. Ann’s. “This is the place were I have been going since I came to
New York over 20 years ago.

“For me, it signifies what landmarks are all about. It is a point of
providing continuity for generations.”