Cardinal, Please Spare This Church

The Archdiocese of New York is threatening to close down my little church, a jewel in Catholicism’s crown on 89th Street just off Madison, in Carnegie Hill, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This has caused great pain in our neighborhood this Christmas. St. Thomas More Church is where my son made his first holy communion, where he was confirmed. It is where at the presentation of the cross, on Good Friday, everyone in the parish who wants to—and that is everyone in the parish, poor people, crazy people, people just holding on, housekeepers, shopkeepers, billionaires—stands on line together, as equals, as brothers and sisters, to kiss the foot of the cross. It always makes me cry.

None of this is important except multiply it by 5,000, 10,000, a million people who’ve walked through our doors the past 75 years to marry, to bury, to worship.

There is context, of course, and context must always be respected. New York isn’t the only place that is or will be closing churches, so the story may have some national application.

The Church of St. Thomas More
The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan celebrates Mass at the Church of St. Thomas More in New York City, Dec. 14.

The Catholic Church, the greatest refuge of the poor in the history of the world, is always in need of money. The New York Archdiocese itself supports schools, hospitals, charities, churches, orders. It is in constant need. There is the refurbishment of mighty St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which has been extremely expensive. There has been the cost, the past 20 years, of all the settlements and legal fees associated with the sex scandals. Compounding this is the constant bureaucratic challenge to manage resources efficiently, professionally.

The church must save where it can. Churches have been closed. Most had particular stresses in common. Some lost parishioners due to demographic change and a peeling off of the faithful. Some cannot support themselves financially and become a drain on the archdiocese. Some churches have fallen behind in repair and have become structurally dangerous. Some lost their place in the heart and life of their communities.

But the great mystery at the heart of the threatened closing of St. Thomas is that none of these criteria apply to it. Not one.

St. Thomas More Church is not empty, it is vital, vibrant and alive. The other day at a special Mass, the standing room only crowd spilled out onto the steps. People move into—and stay in—Carnegie Hill just for the church. Almost half the people at Sunday mass take long car and subway rides to worship there. (All this is from a list of facts about the church put together by its desperate parishioners.)

St. Thomas More not only supports itself financially, it gives money back to the archdiocese. It’s not structurally unsound, it has just completed a major and costly refurbishment. It hasn’t lost its school, it has a full, lively, respected preschool in the basement that families are desperate to get into. It is the sacramental home of all the Catholic schools in the area that don’t have their own church or chapel. It is “a powerhouse of lay involvement in the spirit of Vatican II,” says the parishioners’ fact sheet, with a large parish council and four separate Catholic instruction programs for children. More can be said but at its heart it is a place for families, many of them old-style Catholics with four and five kids. Coffee hour after the 10 a.m. children’s Mass is jammed.

St. Thomas More functions too as a town hall for every secular group in the area. It is a meetinghouse for all of them. It is a citizen.

Our cardinal, my friend Timothy Dolan, being from Milwaukee, would not know, and the members of his many clusters and advisory boards would not know, that St. Thomas More is a mother root of the spiritual life of the Catholics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

They’re not talking about the closing of a church but the destroying of a world.

And for what? The archdiocese’s arguments have been varied and lacking. They say there are other churches close by, that St. Thomas More can be relieved of its duties, blended and “merged” with the church of St. Ignatius. But St. Ignatius is near overwhelmed with its own schools and parish life, and could not absorb St. Thomas More’s functions and programs.

The archdiocese then argues there is a shortage of priests. But St. Thomas More raises priests, three vocations born there the past 20 years. The cardinal’s top media man, Joe Zwilling, last weekend pointed at St. Thomas More and asked, “What will you do in 20 years when there’s no priest” to lead it? Well, over 20 years, in a church founded on miracles, we’ll pray for vocations. More to the point, as one active friend of the archdiocese said to me, “In what way does closing a vital parish create more priests? Please share the logic.”

Yes. Please.

The archdiocese appears to be scrambling for a respectable rationale. In the meantime parishioners wonder about the reasons for what they’ve come to call the second beheading of Thomas More.

Is it possible, they ask, the archdiocese is driven by what drove Henry VIII, politics and real estate?

That is an uncharitable thought. Let’s explore it.

The archdiocese is defensive about closing churches in poor areas. What better way to comfort themselves, and avoid bad press, than closing one in an affluent area? Mr. Zwilling told this newspaper “it would be wrong and unjust” if only less affluent parishes were closed. To me, more sharply, Mr. Zwilling said just because St. Thomas More is in the black doesn’t mean it is “protected.”

The cardinal himself told one parishioner he sees it as a matter of fairness. “I can’t just close poor parishes,” the parishioner quoted him as saying. The parishioner responded, “Poor people are not helped because rich people are hurt.”

All this seems in line with the de Blasio-ization of the times: pick a target, move against it. Especially move on excellence, which can be painted as “elitist.” If you can’t help the poor you can at least afflict those you imagine to be rich.

Real estate? If St. Thomas More is closed it can be sold. New York is experiencing a real-estate boom, Carnegie Hill is desirable. The church and its land could bring in $50 million, maybe $100 million. Any number of developers would jump at the chance. It’s rumored—rumored—any number have.

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In a true spirit of helpfulness some members of St. Thomas More have searched for ways to keep their church alive, give even more money to the archdiocese and help it show greater, deeper affiliation with the needy. The cardinal could sell his grand private mansion in Midtown, just down the street from what has been assessed the most valuable piece of real estate in the city, Saks Fifth Avenue, judged to be worth almost $4 billion. Think of what the cardinal’s mansion would sell or rent for! That would take care of everything. This is what Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley did: sell the cardinal’s estate. He lives now in a small apartment in a modest part of town.

But that and other ideas can be explored in future columns. For now, Merry Christmas. May peace and love descend on all.