With Church Closing, Parishioners Wonder Where They’ll Worship Next

DSC00661Suzanne Rozdeba The church parking lot.

Parishioners at Mary Help of Christians worry they’ll have to worship in a basement chapel – or worse yet, a conference room – after the church holds its final mass this weekend.

The church, which is expected to be sold, is holding its final Spanish-language mass at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Next week the mass will move to Immaculate Conception Church, which has overseen Mary Help of Christians since 2007. But according to John Matcovich, the parish manager, it’s unlikely services will be held in the church’s main space. “We don’t think it’s going to be at the church, at least in the near future, so for now we’re going to keep it somewhere else in the facility,” he told The Local. “We haven’t worked it out logistically yet.”

Immaculate Conception Church is a Gothic-style complex that has been described as “a little French village.” According to its Website, the church boasts soaring ceilings, stunning stained glass windows created by 19th-century artists, and a fresco of The Heavenly City.

Mr. Matcovich said that some of Mary Help of Christians’ most valuable relics – including items from the altar, religious vessels, and statues of Mary Help of Christians, the Pieta, and Jesus and the Tomb – will be moved to a chapel that’s expected to open in the basement of Immaculate Conception in May of 2014, and that several Blessed Mary statues would go in the church’s school. But some worried that during the chapel’s construction, Spanish-language masses would be confined to what parishioners described as a small conference room.

DSC00676Suzanne Rozdeba

Mr. Matcovich said the Hunt Room, as it’s called, was an attractive option, though no decision will be made until Msgr. Kevin J. Nelan returns from vacation. “That room has nice light, and it doesn’t look like a meeting room,” he said, adding that “a nice, green, marble table that has been blessed as an altar” could be moved into the room for services.

Ms. Hearn said parishioners would rather see the statues relocated to a more visible area at Immaculate Conception, such as a grotto where a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is also located. “It’s a spot where Mary Help of Christians could be visibly seen and venerated by the public, rather than hidden away in a basement,” she said. “It’s a very peaceful place where people can quietly pray.”

“They’d rather have that than a chapel built in the basement that nobody’s going to use,” she said, adding that basement services might drive her fellow parishioners to seek other options. “It’s heartbreaking to watch the Spanish-speaking community there and the thought of them dispersing and breaking apart,” she said. “It seems like nobody really wants them and they’re not being asked what they want to do.”

A parishioner at Mary Help of Christians who did not want to be named speculated that many would take their worship to St. Brigid’s once it reopens. “The Mary Help of Christians Hispanic community has never received a warm welcome from Immaculate Conception,” she said. “Everyone is looking around for a parish, so where we were once a parish community, we are all split up.”

Another parishioner, Marlene Palacios, said she was grateful that the church was able to continue Spanish-language masses, but wanted Immaculate Conception to host them at the main altar. “I wish the Archdiocese would recognize the history of Mary Help of Christians Church and what it’s done for people in the neighborhood,” she said. “We should be given the opportunity to celebrate a mass in the church.”

Meanwhile, rumors abound regarding the church’s potential buyer. Bernarda Ortiz, who runs the Mary Help of Christians flea market (which will also relocate to Immaculate Conception in October, though it’s uncertain where) said she saw an “Iranian-looking” man surveying the church property, which caused The Local to wonder whether Benjamin Shaoul, an Iranian-American who owns a building adjacent the property, was beefing up his portfolio. Shown a photo of Mr. Shaoul, Ms. Ortiz confirmed he was the man she had seen in the church parking lot.

But Mr. Shaoul has said on two occasions that he isn’t the buyer, once during a telephone conversation and once through a representative, Kenneth Fisher. “If you find out who the buyer is, we’d love to know, because we think it’s a beautiful property,” said Mr. Fisher. “If they want to turn around and flip it, we’d be interested.”

Others have heard through the grapevine that the buyer was also involved in the sale of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Harlem church that Artimus Construction was reportedly in contract to buy. But a partner at the firm who did not wish to be named said he had never even heard of the property.

“It seems to be a closely-guarded secret,” said one parishioner of the buyer’s identity.

Joseph Zwilling, Communications Director for the Archdiocese of New York, would not reveal the name of the interested party when reached earlier this week. “The sale is still in process and we still have the policy that until everything is finalized, we don’t discuss it,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say there’s been progress.” Asked if the sale would be finalized in something closer to a month or six months, he said, “It would be on the lower end of that spectrum for sure.”