By DANIEL J.
WAKIN / NY Times, April 14, 2003
undreds of worshipers carrying palm fronds swaying in the breeze left Our Lady of Guadalupe church in a Palm Sunday procession yesterday. They walked one block west along 14th Street to St. Bernard's church, where they deposited a life-size portrait of the Blessed Virgin near the altar to symbolize the marriage of two Roman Catholic parishes.
In the months ahead, workers will literally combine the altars of the two historic churches, and the merger of their parishes will be complete. Our Lady, beloved by the city's growing Mexican population and other Latino Catholics, will close for worship and St. Bernard's will assume its name and congregation.
The parishes are merging, according to the Archdiocese of New York, for a simple reason: St. Bernard's has the space, and Our Lady has the bodies. They both have a lot of debt.
"We were just too small to go on, on our own," said the Rev. Kevin J. Nelan, the pastor of St. Bernard's, which seats up to 700 but attracts just dozens at Sunday Masses. "I think they know the reality," he said of his congregants.
By contrast, Our Lady, with a capacity of about 200, is bursting at the seams. On a typical Sunday, worshipers spill out onto 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, mingling with the vendors selling tamales and crucifixes.
Because of their deep devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexicans from around the city attend Mass there. The church has also been a first stop for many new immigrants who want to offer thanks for making it safely across the border.
Some parishioners at St. Bernard's are grumbling privately about the change, parish officials said. The congregation is a mix of mainly Caribbean Hispanics from the neighborhood and elderly non-Hispanic residents.
Many newer arrivals to Our Lady of Guadalupe do not seem overly concerned by the closing. They will have a much larger church and a seat at Mass. But others say they will miss the church's warmth and familiarity.
"It's never going to be the same," said Seusebio Hernandez, a recent arrival from Mexico.
Beatriz Hernandez, who is not related, waited nearby for the procession to begin. "It's an extraordinary sanctuary, and I'm going to miss the intimacy," said Ms. Hernandez, who was born in Cuba. "It brings people home. I come here and feel like I'm in Latin America."
"I can't imagine it's closing," she said, and paused. "It's actually heartbreaking."
Heartbreak or not, the merger is an example of Cardinal Edward M. Egan's determination to streamline the operations of the financially strapped archdiocese.
He has closed several schools and some archdiocesan offices. Financial pressures, a shortage of priests and shifting populations are making parish consolidations inevitable. Other mergers as well as closings and the establishment of new parishes are being studied, said Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese's spokesman.
Our Lady's closing also symbolizes a demographic fact: the influx of Mexican immigrants is bolstering a thriving population of Latino Catholics in some parishes while others remain static. Joel Magallan, a Jesuit brother who heads the archdiocese's Mexican apostolate, says about 700,000 Mexican immigrants live in the archdiocese. He said a major increase occurred in the last decade, although he could not provide data.
The merger echoes a chapter in the cardinal's previous tenure, when he was the bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. In the 1990's, the Hispanic congregation of Our Lady of Montserrat in Stamford accused him of neglecting their parish. Just before leaving for New York in 2000, he merged the church with the parish of St. Benedict. After a rocky start, things are running smoothly, although the church is still cramped, said the pastor, the Rev. Leonard Paskus.
On 14th Street, St. Bernard's will be renamed Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Bernard's. By the end of June, all sacraments and Masses will be transferred there, Father Nelan said. New bank accounts will be created and addresses changed on mailings and stationery. Parish and finance councils for the combined church will be established.
Father Nelan, who is also the administrator for Our Lady of Guadalupe, said he planned to keep the church open for confirmation classes for the time being. Officials of the archdiocese said its future remained uncertain.
"It is possible that it could be put to an alternate use," Mr. Zwilling said. "There is a very strong desire, in looking at the resources of the archdiocese, to put what we have to best possible use."
Other churches have been permanently lost. After Our Lady of the Scapular, a church on East 28th Street that was in disrepair, joined with St. Stephen's on East 29th Street in 1990, it was torn down and the property sold, Mr. Zwilling said.
Father Nelan has acknowledged that part of the property of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which includes a rectory, guest rooms above the sanctuary and a hall next door, could be sold to help meet the needs of St. Bernard's. That parish is $700,000 in debt, compared with $380,000 for Our Lady.
Since taking over at St. Bernard's in September, Father Nelan has made a steady effort to ensure the merger's success. "We exist for only one purpose, and that is to save souls," he wrote in the Sept. 22 bulletin, as if to answer critics of the merger.
Yesterday's procession was part of that effort, a symbolic joining of congregations. Afterward, Our Lady of Guadalupe's 12:30 p.m. Mass was celebrated at St. Bernard's. The church had not held so many people in years. Pews were packed, and worshipers, many of them young adults and children, were directed to the dusty balcony, which had not been used in at least a decade.
St. Bernard's is being remodeled to make it more attractive and congenial to the Mexican worshipers. Opaque glass in the outer doors has been replaced with clear panes, and the yellowed plaster of the stations of the cross on the interior walls was stripped and brought to life with detailed coloring.
A painting of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe will be placed in front of a mosaic portrait of St. Bernard, which is behind and above the altar and is the church's focal point. A statue of Juan Diego, the Indian peasant to whom the Virgin was said to be revealed in 1531 and who was canonized last year, will be placed just inside the vestibule. Canvas paintings of angels, which flank the St. Bernard mosaic behind the altar, will be replaced with murals depicting Juan Diego, an apparition of the Virgin and the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. A portrait of St. Bernard will be added.
A larger baptismal font will be installed and the processional crucifix, ornate bronze sanctuary lamps and candlesticks will be brought from Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Bernard's.
Right now, the distance between the two churches seems much more than a block. The dark stone and Gothic design of St. Bernard's gives the church, completed in 1875, a somewhat forbidding feel. One of the church's treasures is a large stained-glass window that is said to be by Tiffany, according to Father Nelan.
By contrast, Our Lady of Guadalupe, built in 1902 to serve the area's thriving Spanish-speaking community, has a gracious Spanish Baroque facade. The interior behind it was hewn out of the first two floors of an 1845 brownstone row house once owned by the Delmonico family of restaurant fame. Airily delicate floral paintings decorate the church's simple white interior.
Few signs of the neighborhood's Spanish legacy remain. One is Macondo, a Spanish-language bookstore where Rodolfo Quebleen, originally of Argentina, rents a corner to sell tapes and CD's. Mr. Quebleen said he lamented the demise of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he called " a symbol for Spanish-speaking people."
People come to the church to pray throughout the day. One day last week, a woman sitting in a back pew who gave her name only as Carmen said she lived around the corner. She said she was 89 and had married her husband, Manuel, in the church in 1948. She was wistful about its closing, and said she thought the walk to St. Bernard's might be too much for her.
"This is my place, I feel, but if somebody pushes me," she said, "I will say goodbye, too."
Michelle V. Agins/The
New York Times