A Stiletto Like a Christmas Icicle
The Roman Catholic church of St. Thomas More is a parish on the Upper East Side frequented by wealthy people in Carnegie Hill. But it is also frequented by non-wealthy people. When my wife and I lived in Manhattan in 1998-99, we would from time to time make the long walk from our place on 58th Street between First and Second Avenues, all the way up to St. Thomas More. Our only Christmas in Manhattan, we went to midnight mass there, and walked all the way home in the freezing cold, our hearts all aglow.
It was shocking, therefore, to hear that the Archdiocese of New York is considering closing the parish to save money. Why? According to the NYT account:
Among the parishes that are now endangered, for example, is the Church of St. Thomas More on the Upper East Side, which parishioners call vibrant and strong, with about 3,500 members and Sunday services that are filled with young families. The parish covers its costs and has $1.5 million in cash reserves. Its intimate sanctuary was the setting for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s memorial service, because it had been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s parish.
The parish has one of the highest per capita donor profiles in the entire archdiocese, Christopher E. Baldwin, a trustee, said. It recently finished an $800,000 round of improvements to the church’s buildings. Its community space hosts a highly regarded nursery school and accommodates some 400 community meetings per year.
Shocked by the archdiocese’s recommendation, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin Madigan, told his parishioners in a Nov. 23 letter that he pressed church officials for the reason St. Thomas was being recommended for closing. He was told, he said, that “since St. Thomas More will eventually close some day, it is better to do it now rather than later, when there is presently a momentum within the archdiocese to merge parishes.”
You are thriving, but one day you won’t be, so better to close you now than later. Where’s the logic in that? Can somebody explain it to me? The idea seems to be that even though it’s doing well now, the priest shortage is going to mean that there simply are not enough priests to go around. A small parish like St. Thomas More simply won’t be able to claim a share of the archdiocese’s scant clerical resources.
Turns out that St. Thomas More is the parish of the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who is not pleased that the archdiocese has placed a bullseye on her church. She writes about “my friend Timothy Dolan,” the cardinal, and how being an out-of-towner he couldn’t possibly understand what’s really happening here. And then she takes him to school. Here how you stick the knife in:
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.
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.
Brutal — and a thing of rhetorical beauty and elegance.
UPDATE: Sam M. and others point out in the comments box that the demographic and financial profile of that parish has nothing to do with the vocations crisis. Eventually, there won’t be enough priests to go around even to parishes that are full of parishioners. The Archdiocese of New York is one of the largest in the US, but also one of the very worst, proportionally, in attracting new vocations to the priesthood. Eventually, something’s got to give.
The Catholic journalist John Burger, a lifelong New Yorker, writes, about the vocations crisis in his archdiocese:
I think there’s a great deal of dishonesty and denial on the part of some people who engaged in the fantasy that we were entering a new springtime of the faith. The aggiornamento of Vatican II was supposed to bring in tons more people; it did just the opposite. So long as people refuse to admit there were mistakes made a generation ago — in catechesis, liturgy, addressing the real problems of secularism — they’re never going to make any real reform.
We’ve also had a lot of white flight from the city out to the suburbs, and in the northern counties there is a need for new parishes. At the same time, down here, we do have…redundant parishes. Another reason for these closures is that the churches were organized very much for ethnic purposes rather than evangelical purposes. There was a cultural assumption that the Church was a home for immigrants, and that they would belong to parishes not just for the faith but also for, legitimately, social reasons, for community, schools and the like. So in Manhattan we have an old German parish, an Italian parish, [etc.], and they’re in close proximity with each other. And, and that’s no longer needed.
The primary fact is that most Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Mass attendance in New York is about 12%. You’ve had about a 50% drop since the Second Vatican Council. Nobody will address that. They’ll acknowledge the fact, but they will not address the fact that there were some serious mistakes made in the last generation.
It would make a good study on why New York City, which is so culturally vibrant — sort of tormented and perverse in many ways, but vibrant— has such spiritual lethargy.
The other factor, of course, is the priest shortage. It’s a curiosity that here we are in New York City, the heart of the universe — I say that as a New Yorker — and we have such a low number of priestly vocations. In my last parish, where I was for 12 years, I had nine fellows go on to the seminary. When some clerics ask “How is it done?” I tell them, and some don’t want to hear it. I think it’s significant now that more young men are going into religious orders rather than the diocesan priesthood. Of course they are distinct kinds of ministries but I think some of them go into religious orders who might have gone into the secular priesthood, because the local scene often seems banal. The religious orders often are more challenging.