Six months ago, the New York Archdiocese’s decision to consolidate more than 100 parishes sent shock waves through communities across the state, including here on the Lower East Side. The parishes of St. Joseph and St. James (jointly operated since 2007) are to be merged with the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street. Now a group of parishioners from St. Joseph/St. James has retained a Canon lawyer and are seeking recourse from the Vatican.
In a decree issued last November, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that the parish, located in buildings at 5 Monroe St. and 32 James St. (a city landmark), was to cease holding masses and offering other services by Aug. 1. While the buildings would, for the time being remain open for special events, all regular services would take place at Transfiguration.
In a statement, the parishioners said they formed an “independent lay voluntary committee” to petition Cardinal Dolan to “rescind his decree.” He responded last month, rejecting the petition from the lay committee. Also last month, a “formal recourse” was sent to the Vatican’s administrative court.
For several months, parishioners throughout the Archdiocese have been complaining that they were initially denied access to the decrees, making it impossible for them to prepare appeals. The decrees were only posted on the Archdiocese’s website after inquiries from the New York Times in February. The statement from the St. Joseph/St. James committee asks the court to consider this “procedural deficiency” in weighing the case.
According to Victor Papa, a committee leader, parishioners oppose the merger for several other reasons, as well. For one thing, the cultures of the churches involved are different. St. Joseph’s is situated across from the Alfred E. Smith Houses and alongside Knickerbocker Village, a large affordable housing complex with a very diverse population.
The parish, built in 1926 by Italian immigrants, became a central place of worship for Lower East Side Latinos. In recent years, a large number of Chinese – recent immigrants from the Fujian province – have reshaped the parish community. Transfiguration, on the other hand, has always been a mainstay of Chinatown’s traditional Cantonese population.
The committee noted that “implementation” discussions are taking place among the parishes in which both “opportunities and shortcomings” have been raised. “One possible shortcoming,” they identified “was the capacity of Transfiguration Church to accommodate Spanish language masses on Sundays in an already crowded Sunday schedule of Chinese language masses, much less having a Spanish-speaking priest to celebrate a Spanish language mass.”
We contacted Joseph Zwilling, the Archdiocese’s communications director, about the issues raised by the committee. He did not respond directly concerning the delay in making the decrees available (he did address the topic in the February New York Times article). In a statement, Zwilling wrote:
We fully expected that at least some of our parishes would seek recourse to the Holy See (the Vatican) to try to have the merger decisions overturned. The parishes have the right to petition for a reversal, and we fully support them exercising their rights should they choose to do so. However, we believe that when the Congregation for the Clergy (the Vatican office which has the responsibility for reviewing these “appeals”) has fully examined the intense process of consultation and review that the archdiocese engaged in prior to any decisions being made, that they will uphold the decisions that were reached. Finally, we know that these times of transition are hard, and we have trained teams working with the merging parishes to assist them in their transition. There are certainly many issues to be addressed, but we are confident that the parishes will come together as one family in faith. There will necessarily be some adjustments that the parish will have to make as they form this new community of believers.
Father Lino Gonsalves of St. Joseph/St. James has not responded to our phone messages. Father Raymond Nobiletti of Transfiguration said it would be inappropriate to speak about the merger since he has not yet been told who will be leading the reconfigured parish.