After the churches close

Panelists at the town hall on religious institutions held at Cooper Union. Photo: Jason Cohen

What’s next? At Cooper Union, East Village residents and activists discuss the sale of religious buildings

By Jason Cohen

With the rising number of churches being closed and sold throughout the city, members of the East Village gathered last week to discuss what is happening to religious institutions.

In June 2017, the archdiocese announced the deconsecration of 18 churches.

On Monday, May 6, The Cooper Square Community Land Trust held a town hall at Cooper Union, where the Church of the Nativity and potential future opportunities for former religious properties in the neighborhood were discussed. A CLT is a non-profit organization formed to own land and to maintain control and oversight of houses or rental buildings located on the land.

“I think people should be aware that there is an uptick in the sale of religious properties,” said Rebecca Amato, who is also associate director of NYU’s Urban Democracy Lab, which focuses on urban renewal in areas affected by gentrification. “I think they don’t realize that they are being turned into types of housing that they can’t afford.”

Amato was joined by Catholic Worker Joanne Kennedy; church advocates and longtime members of the closed St. Veronica’s Church, Terry Cook and Cindy Boyle; Steve Herrick, the director of the Cooper Square Committee; Julian Morales, the director of organizing for the Good Old Lower East Side Inc.; Valerio Orselli, executive director at Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and Jeremy Unger, legislative director for Councilwoman Carlina Rivera.

The Church of the Nativity shuttered its doors at 44 Second Ave. in 2015, but it has been a battle to determine what to do with the property. In February 2018, the land trust had a goal of turning the former home of the Nativity Church into 123 low income senior housing units. But the plan didn’t work,

The land trust had attempted to purchase the property for $18.5 million. Of that amount, $5 million would be paid to the archdiocese upon closing. The remainder, which would use a combination of federal tax credits and state and local funding, would be paid in installments over a 20-year period. This offer was rejected and instead the archdiocese prefers to develop market-rate housing at this site. The archdiocese wants to sell the church for $50 million.

In April, Catholic Homes New York, the affordable housing unit of Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of New York, announced it would develop several religious properties and provide 2,000 affordable units in NYC over the next 10 years. However, Nativity was left off that list.

According to Amato, the archdiocese has so far made $56 million in the East Village alone and has St. Emeric’s, Nativity, and St. Brigid’s School being readied for a sale. “We know that the intended pricetag for Nativity is roughly $45 million,” Amato said. “So that would mean that the Archdiocese will have made upwards of $100 million the East Village since 2004 [when St. Anne’s was sold] as soon as the sale of Nativity is complete.”

At the town hall, Amato told the attendees that in November 2018, she discussed the Church of the Nativity at the Pontifical Council for Culture’s international conference on cultural heritage in Rome. The topic of the conference: “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore?”

Amato explained how the Church of the Nativity has been an anchor in the Lower East Side since 1842. It was a place where second- and third-generation Americans came, and it held the funeral for Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

“You would think for a building that’s been there since 1842 that they could replace it with something that could really serve the community,” she said. “There’s more than economic value to property. Property means something to people. There’s a social value.”

While Amato is Jewish and learned about the church for research, the recent closure and sale of churches has taken an emotional toll on Terry Cook, a longtime parishioner at St. Veronica’s Church. Cook told the attendees she is distraught at how the Catholic Church is caring more about money than the community.

“It’s very painful to see and read about what’s happened to sacred havens and spiritual homes,” she remarked. “Sacred homes have always anchored towns and cities.”

Morales echoed Cook’s sentiments and argued that the Catholic Church seemingly cares more about money and not the community.

“We want smart development, so the residents of the community can have their fingerprints on it,” Morales stressed. “We aren’t against development, we just want smart development.”

This ultimately is a quality of life issue, he said. Neighborhoods will go from bodegas to Starbucks and buses to Ubers.

“We want to push for affordable housing,” Morales said.