St. Brigid's Spared by $20 Million Gift
"For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we don't see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance."
The patience and prayers of the parishioners of St. Brigid's Church on the Lower East Side of New York were answered on May 21, when it was announced that an anonymous donor had given $20 million to ensure that the 160-year-old church would not be demolished and turned into condos. The secret Samaritan specified $10 million for repairs, $2 million for St. Brigid's School and the remaining $8 million as an endowment to the parish.
One of the few links left to the famine generation, the Gothic-style church was designed by Patrick Keely. A Tipperary man, Keely moved to New York when he was 25 and went on to have a long and distinguished career as an architect. The cornerstone was laid in September 1848 and the church was completed 15 months later, the work carried out by Irish craftsmen who had fled the great hunger in Ireland. St. Brigid's became a haven for the Irish-American community, and later for all nationalities that have called the parish home.
However, in recent years Mass attendance went down and in 2001 the church was closed after a crack was discovered in a wall, rendering the structure unsafe. In 2004 the parish was closed and the Archdiocese of New York started making moves to destroy the church to raise funds.
The Archdiocese's actions provoked outrage in the local community and a committee to save St. Brigid's Church was formed. In July 2006 demolition workers made a huge hole in the east wall, dragged pews out onto the street, and shattered some of the irreplaceable stained-glass windows. Numerous legal challenges and appeals were made, but despite the committee's best efforts, the final appeal ruled in favor of the Archdiocese. The committee was working on an appeal at the Court of Appeals in Albany, when on May 21 the $20 million gift was announced.
One man's generosity changed everything. "This magnificent gift will make it possible for Saint Brigid's Church to be fittingly restored with its significant structural problems properly addressed," said Edward Cardinal Egan, who had been much criticized for abandoning his flock in St. Brigid's, in a statement. "The two additional gifts, to create an endowment for the parish and to support the parish school, are a powerful testament to the donor's goodness and understanding. He has my heartfelt gratitude, as I recently told him at a meeting in my residence."
Since the incredible act of charity, the joy felt about the church's salvation has been matched by curiosity as to who "he" is. A spokesman for the Cardinal ruled out actor Matt Dillon, who was an active supporter for the church to be saved. Philanthropist Chuck Feeney's foundation Atlantic Philanthropies also confirmed it was not Feeney who made this extraordinary gesture.
Though the identity of the donor may never be revealed, the impact of his actions will be felt deeply by those who worship in the church for many years to come. "The age of miracles has not passed. St. Brigid's has been saved," said Ed Torres, chairman of the Save St. Brigid's committee, at the Bard for St. Brigid's II fundraiser at Connolly's Bar in Times Square on June 18. As well as thanking all the artists, committee members past and present, and parishioners who helped in one way or another, Torres had this to say to the "anonymous angel" who saved St. Brigid's: "I wish that person was here tonight, not just because I would like to ask for a loan of my own! The amount offered to restore the spiritual and historical landmark is 20 million dollars, but the chance to return to this sacred place to worship God and honor His presence in the holy sacrifice of Mass is priceless. There are no words adequate to thank a person for such a gift." - Declan O'Kelly
Acclaimed author Peter Quinn participated in the Bard for St. Brigid's II, and puts in perspective the role and place of St. Brigid's in the history of the Irish in New York. Here are some excerpts from his speech:
"Here we arrive at last, as James Joyce put it by 'a commodius vicus of recirculation' to this incredibly happy occasion filled with music, song, dance, and rejoicing. This is what the Spanish culture calls a fiesta. In Irish culture we call it a wake. Tonight, however, instead of sitting Shiva for a person, we are waking a certain idea that St. Brigid's was doomed and that only a fool could believe otherwise. In the wonderful words of St. Paul in the First Corinthians, 'It is the fools who have turned out to be wise, it is the weak who have turned out to be strong, it is the despised who have turned out to have honor.' Last week at the opening of the Irish apartment at Tenement Museum, Consul General of Ireland, Niall Burgess, reminded the audience that besides that apartment there was only one physical link that directly connected us with the immense and transforming human deluge that poured into this fort in the aftermath of the Great Hunger; one million people in 10 years. That other link he said was St. Brigid's. The fight to preserve that link often seemed the mother of all lost causes. But, no matter how lost or hopeless it seemed, we had what nobody else had. We had St. Brigid on our side. And it was St. Brigid, she, who made a difference, for who else could have inspired a $20 million miracle?"
Quinn went on to describe his own personal links to the church:
"The Quinns have been parishioners of St. Brigid's for over half a century. My grandfather was married at St. Brigid's in 1897. He liked it so much that when his first wife died he returned in 1898 to do it again. My grandmother put to rest any inkling he might have to return to St. Brigid's to make matrimony a third time by outliving him, as Irish women usually do, by thirteen years. My father was baptized in St. Brigid's in 1904. He received his first communion, first confession, and confirmation there. And so did his brother and sister, my aunt and uncle. I, on the other hand, had the good taste to receive all those sacraments in the Bronx. And since it doesn't look like I'm going to be ordained, the only other religious rite of passage that I can now look forward to having at St. Brigid's is my funeral!"
- Peter Quinn is the author of many books including Looking for Jimmy, Hour of the Cat and Banished Children of Eve, which has just been republished in paperback by The Overlook Press.
A Look Into the Life of an Irish-American Immigrant Family
A small coffin in a cramped room re-creates a sad day in the life of the Moore family, Irish immigrants who lived at 97 Orchard St. in 1869. The re-creation of the Moores' apartment, , which opened on June 17, is New York's Tenement Museum's first new exhibition in six years. During the hour-long tour you can catch a glimpse of the struggles faced by Irish immigrants in the late 19th century, with emphasis on the lack of knowledge about disease at the time. Though actual details of the child's death are unknown, through educated guesses and speculation, the curators of the Tenement Museum have pieced together a likely scenario of the day that Agnes Moore, the infant daughter of Irish immigrants Joseph and Bridget, died of malnutrition. With the mortality rate for the children of Irish immigrants at a staggering 25%, only four of the Moores' eight children made it to adulthood. Despite the hardships faced by the family, the apartment is infused with cheerful decorations: a mantle covered by a bright green runner, topped with ornaments, a man's top hat placed carefully alongside a cross. Steve Long, the museum's Vice President of Collections and Education, said in a recent article, "We wanted to emphasize the human urge to decorate."
The museum is at 108 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Tours of the apartment are available Tuesday through Friday at 12, 1:30, 3, and 4:30 and on Saturdays and Sundays at 11, 12:30, 2, 3:30 with the last tour starting at 5. All tours are guided and tickets can be pre-ordered on the museum's website at www.tenement.org - Elizabeth Reilly
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