Volume 19 Issue 42 | March 2 - 8, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Our Lady of Vilnius parishioners at a candlelight vigil Monday night protesting the closing of the Lithuanian Catholic church on Broome St.

While priest is away, archdiocese padlocks church

By Albert Amateau

A group of parishioners, many of them singing Lithuanian hymns, gathered by candlelight Monday night Feb. 26 on the steps of Our Lady of Vilnius on Broome St. across from the Holland Tunnel entrance.

The church, established in 1905 as a national parish for Lithuanian Catholics, had been padlocked on Monday morning by a building security team dispatched by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

Despite a notice from the archdiocese last August that the church would definitely be closed at some time in the near future, parishioners this week said the padlocking was a stealth move.

“They called Father Eugene [Sawicki] Friday for a 9 o’clock appointment with Cardinal Egan today,” Francis Healy, a parishioner and the grand knight of the Knights of Columbus chapter that meets in the church, said on Monday evening. “While he was up there, four security guys came down and changed the locks on the door. I’m the only guy they let in because the knights have things there. I took the money we had and our charter, but a lot of stuff is still there.”

Joy McAleer, the parish volunteer secretary and receptionist, said on Tues., Feb. 27, that the security men had come to the rectory at 32 Dominick St. behind the church shortly before 10 a.m. on Monday with a notice from the chancellor of the archdiocese ordering the church and the rectory to be closed.

“I told them they couldn’t close the rectory because Father lives here. So they went away. But I’m worried about the church — the Blessed Sacrament [supply of communion wafers] is there, and Father has chalices there,” McAleer said. “Father Eugene is heartbroken,” she added. Father Eugene Sawicki, a former firefighter who became a priest and pastor of the small parish, refused on Tuesday to speak to reporters.

About 15 neighborhood regulars showed up for the daily noon Mass on Monday only to find the church doors locked. But at the candlelight vigil on Monday night, several parishioners said they would come to the church on Sunday and hold a service on the steps.

On Tuesday, Healy, along with fellow Knights of Columbus and parishioners Joe Donnarumma, Frank Cacia and Tommy Cannella, came to the rectory to talk to reporters and to commiserate with each other.

“My sister got married in this church,” Cannella recalled.

Angela DeStefano and her sister, Anne Carpenito, who were born and raised on Broome St. about three blocks from Our Lady of Vilnius, said they would miss going to Mass at the church they had always attended several times a week.

“We could go to St. Anthony’s but we’re getting on in years and it’s a longer walk,” DeStefano said.

For the past three years, Mass has been said in the parish hall in the church basement because cracks were discovered in the roof beams above the sanctuary. Because of the basement’s low ceiling and cramped quarters, funerals and weddings could not take place at Our Lady of Vilnius. But McAleer said that engineers had declared that the structural problem could be resolved.

“One of the Lithuanian parishioners is an engineer and he sent a detailed plan for repair to the archdiocese,” McAleer said. “It’s been so frustrating. We’re debt free, we’ve never received money from the archdiocese. And I know we’ve been paying for insurance.”

But Joseph Zwilling, spokesperson for the archdiocese, said the dwindling number of members had more to do with the decision to close the church than the condition of the roof. He also said there were no immediate plans to close the rectory.

The closing of the church building was not connected to the realignment of the archdiocese that resulted in recent closings of several Catholic churches, Zwilling said. Our Lady of Vilnius was built to serve Lithuanian-speaking immigrants who used to live in the neighborhood, a population that has been gone for decades, he said.

While Lithuanian-speaking families come from far and wide to the church on Broome St. every so often, the parish is dwindling.

“Sunday and holy day Masses are regularly attended by from six to 30 persons,” Zwilling said. “The priest serving the parish does not understand, speak or read Lithuanian. Persons wishing to participate in Mass and parish activities in Lithuanian are informed of Lithuanian churches in the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of Newark.”

Last week, the consul of Lithuania delivered a letter to the New York Archdiocese from the president of Lithuania asking about the future of Our Lady of Vilnius and Zwilling said the situation of the parish was explained.

Moreover, Monsignor Edmond Putri-mas, apostolic delegate for Lithuanian Catholics living outside of Lithuania, was informed about the parish several months ago and agreed it should be closed, Zwilling said.

There has been no decision about whether to keep or sell the property, said Zwilling. The archdiocese usually uses churches that have been closed for other Catholic purposes, although Vilnius is close to several new luxury condo projects.

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