Friday, June 27, 2008

Our Lady of Vilnius

In recent years New Yorkers have become significantly more conscious of historic preservation issues. No doubt the tragic demolition of the old Penn Station in 1964, forever a black mark against city planners, proved a catalyst to that heightened awareness. Still, our city faces an architectural barrage of post-modern monstrosities of reflective glass and asymmetrical forms. Thus I'm always excited to see old structures renovated for new uses. Chelsea and Soho, for example, are full of former warehouses and manufacturing spaces converted to housing and galleries. An article in this week's New York Times ("From Pickles to Paintings") observes that even the Lower East Side is experiencing the same kind of transformation as Chelsea. Although detractors often bemoan the "gentrification" process in areas like the East Village, Soho, and especially Harlem, one has to agree that renovation is preferable to demolition in many cases. The last thing New York City wants is block after block of vacant lots or derelict buildings similar to blighted Detroit.

Of all of this city's architectural gems, the diverse houses of worship seem to catch my eyes - and camera lenses - first. From synagogues and small parish churches to the city's grand cathedrals, New York has a religious diversity - reflected in the architecture of its churches - that seems staggering to catalog. One of my favorites in the category of "small parish churches" is Our Lady of Vilnius, founded in 1905 to minister to the city's Lithuanian population. Like so many small churches throughout the five boroughs, this parish serves as a focal point for the neighborhood, even long after much of the local Lithuanian population has moved elsewhere. Located on Dominick Street in Soho, it sits just opposite the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and for years I've noticed it with curiosity as we've left the city for destinations far afield.

Earlier this week I had to run downtown to City Hall and decided to walk home, taking Hudson St. from Chambers all the way up to the West Village. And there it sat, Our Lady of Vilnius, just half a block away from my path as I trudged uptown. Mind you, it wasn't easy to reach, tucked between the various lanes that feed traffic into the tunnel. I had heard a couple of years ago that the parish might be closed by the Archdiocese of New York as part of Cardinal Egan's controversial effort to shutter and consolidate smaller congregations. Naturally I wanted to get over there before something happened to the building, but unfortunately I was too late. The exterior is in a sad state and I've learned that the roof of the sanctuary, constructed in 1905, is structurally unsafe, upheld by scaffolding. The whole place was padlocked, neglected, and dark.

With a little digging I found out that the church was closed in February 2007. Indeed, the manner of its closure underscores charges that Cardinal Egan has behaved in a heavy-handed and decidedly non-pastoral fashion. At the very hour he had scheduled a meeting with Father Eugene Sawicki of Our Lady of Vilnius, Cardinal Egan's goons were changing the locks on the doors and turning tearful parishioners away. Needless to say, the priest and his congregation were shocked and dismayed. Since then the archdiocese has stripped out the historic stained glass, altars, and other art works, while painting over a fresco on the ceiling behind the altar (shown at left).

It's just amazing how badly this congregation has been treated by Cardinal Egan. Efforts to compromise have fallen on deaf ears. Even the Lithuanian government has joined the effort, appealing to both the archdiocese and the pope. Reports suggest that the church will be demolished and the property sold to developers. If that is the case, once again, profit will have trumped propriety in New York's cutthroat real estate market. To be sure, New York City has a much improved track record in the field of historic preservation. But each year more structures of significance are leveled in the name of progress. The situation is especially troubling when an institution like the Archdiocese of New York engages in the kind of behavior we usually associate with the robber barons of the city's real estate market.

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Nobody's Wife said...

Our Lady of Vilnius is still standing and so are we, an eccentric group of Lithuanians and Americans who found a spiritual home in this place. The Archdiocese of New York (ADNY) applied for a demolition permit while our canonical appeal was wending its way through the Vatican bureaucracy, so we obtained a temporary injunction to preserve the building as long as possible in the event that Rome rules in our favor. We are not gone, but I was so afraid that we were forgotten. Thanks for noticing and valuing our church and putting this post out there. We are losing too many people who bring joy and diversity to New York by extinguishing their habitats. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Vilnius said...

I did not know that there is a church called "Lady Of Vilnius" in the USA. It seems there are a lot of interesting attractions in New York.

BooCat said...

How despicable of anyone to deface such beautiful artwork. If only from an historic standpoint it is significant and should be preserved. Barbarians!