|The unused convent at St. Margaret Mary that a Muslim group wished to buy earlier this year. |
As the battle over the “Ground Zero mosque” reached a boiling point over the summer, a similar debate raged on a much more quiet patch of New York City real estate.
Though it didn’t get nearly as much attention, the way this story unfolded probably tells us more about the future of New York City than the more sensationalistic saga in downtown Manhattan.
This painful story began in the summer, but it returned to the headlines this week when the New York Archdiocese announced that still more Catholic schools and churches will be closing or consolidated.
One of the schools slated for closure was St. Margaret Mary elementary school on Staten Island.
St. Margaret Mary parish is nestled in the seaside neighborhood of Midland Beach. The streets are lined with trees, bungalows and single-family homes, located not far from a sandy stretch of beach and boardwalk which once attracted the city’s elite.
These days, St. Margaret Mary parish is a solid middle class neighborhood, filled with the cops, firefighters, teachers and other city workers you can find in many outer borough white ethnic neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, the corner on which the church is located is named in honor of an Irish American former resident and hero of 9/11, FDNY captain Martin J. Egan.
So, it’s not exactly a surprise that many parish residents objected when the Muslim American Society struck a deal with St. Margaret Mary parish pastor Father Keith Fennesy to purchase an unused convent for almost $1 million. The proceeds from the sale would reportedly have gone to the parish itself.
June and July were filled with debates and protests focused on whether or not the Muslim American Society should be setting up a mosque and school in the neighborhood.
New York Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling said local Catholics should not have objected to the deal.
“I’ve not heard anything that says this is a terrorist organization,” Zwilling was quoted as saying in the Staten Island Advance newspaper.
“So I would hate to even use a word like that when that word only serves to inflame people’s emotions.”
Still, this wasn’t merely bigotry or lingering 9/11 anger. The Muslim American Society did have questionable links to groups which support violence.
Locals also grumbled that the deal was struck without community input. In the end, the deal was nullified.
Fast forward to this week, when it was announced that St. Margaret Mary elementary school was targeted for closure. Published reports indicate that the K-8 school has only 74 students.
How Catholic parishes can survive in the 21st century is too complex to get into here. One thing that is clear is that St. Margaret Mary certainly could have used that million bucks.
What’s also clear is that St. Margaret Mary parish -- with new immigrants coming in, and with school enrollment dropping among the second and third generation Irish and Italians -- is changing.
Parish residents who were angry about Muslims setting up shop in their neighborhood may have -- if you can excuse the metaphor -- won the battle.
But there is a longer-term issue at work here. New York City is changing rapidly, and the only consolation is that New York has been in a constant state of flux pretty much since the 1600s. That’s true even in quiet, outer borough enclaves such as Midland Beach. No one welcomed the Irish -- or the Italians or the Jews
or any other group -- with open arms. This did not keep them from coming.
The same is surely going to be true for Muslim immigrants from the Middle East.
If you want proof of that, take the 10 minute drive from Midland Beach, along Father Capodanno Boulevard, over the Verrazano Bridge into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
The onetime Irish and Norwegian stronghold now has a large Muslim presence. You don’t have to like the new Bay Ridge, though it must be added the neighborhood didn’t fall apart when Muslims moved in.
Irish Catholics weren’t exactly embraced in every corner of the city. The city, of course, survived that momentous change, too.
It is a blessing and a curse that New York City changes so relentlessly. This is what gives the city its energy and vitality.
It is also what makes this such an unsettling, downright scary, place to live sometimes.
(Contact Sidewalks at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)