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THE NATION

Historic N.Y. Church May Close Doors

Valuable real estate and decreasing attendance threaten St. Ann's in Greenwich Village.

March 27, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — St. Ann's Armenian Catholic Cathedral stands apart amid the Greenwich Village bustle of trendy shops and university students. For 157 years, it has served the faithful, through the Civil War, the Great Depression and New York's brush with bankruptcy.

But many here fear the valuable real estate is about to fall victim to shrinking attendance and the budgetary crisis facing the Archdiocese of New York.

At 2.5 million members, this is the nation's second-largest archdiocese. And like others across the country, it is in the process of reallocating resources -- which will mean closing some parishes and consolidating others. St. Ann's is one of those likely targets.

Studies show that growth in the Roman Catholic community has been in the suburbs and counties north of New York City, not in Manhattan, where a quarter of the archdiocese's 414 parishes are located.

A spokesman said church officials have not made a final decision about St. Ann's fate. But inside the gray stone Gothic Revival building, where thousands have practiced a parade of religions, the specter of the padlock looms large.

During its 157 years, St. Ann's has been a Baptist church, a Protestant church, a synagogue, a Catholic parish and, most recently, the headquarters of the U.S. and Canadian leader of the Armenian Rite.

"You could almost feel the generations that had gone before you," said Olivia Fitzsimons, who has attended Mass at the church for 20 years. "If those walls could talk.... It is very sad."

Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy's sacred sites program, said any eleventh-hour attempt to preserve the building through a historical designation likely would fail, because the archdiocese could claim financial hardship.

"We are deciding what to do with the building. Selling it is a possibility," church spokesman Joseph Zwilling said. "The primary thing we are looking at is where are the Catholic people today, and where will they be in the future.

"Do we need to open new churches in some places? Do we need to close or merge churches or parishes in other parts of the archdiocese?" Zwilling said. "Are there other creative ways we could use the resources we have -- including our people -- in a more effective way?"

Friedman said that as real estate values have skyrocketed in parts of Manhattan, developers are approaching churches to sell buildings and property -- often with plans that would allow them to stay on the site, albeit in scaled-down quarters.

St. Ann's stands in the East Village, across from New School University's modern brick dormitory. Apartment rentals in the area have risen dramatically in recent years.

Some parishioners speculate the archdiocese could receive $16 million for the St. Ann's property, which includes a parish house and a parking lot. The potential buyers, Friedman and others said, could include New York University and the New School University, major educational institutions in the area.

Most days the church, with its stone steeple and ornate wrought-iron railings, remains locked. Masses are held only on weekends. The parish house, paint peeling, stands empty.

There once were Masses in Latin and Spanish here. Now, even most of the Armenian parishioners have left, attending religious services in Brooklyn instead.

But others are putting up a fight. They have fasted, picketed St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and launched a website condemning Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York, for considering closing the church.

"Culturally, this church has been a place of worship for different kinds of people," said Roz Li, an architect who still goes to Mass at St. Ann's. "This is the place were I have been going since I came to New York over 20 years ago.

"For me, it signifies what landmarks are all about. It is a point of providing continuity for generations."

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