The city’s best-preserved building from the ancient world sits not amongst the famous ruins, but rather in the Historic Center, which is identified with the Renaissance period beginning in the 1300s. When people refer to Rome’s layers of history, then, they have in mind places like the Piazza della Rotondo.
America, sometimes called the new Rome, has nothing to compare to it; its greatest metropolis is late into its 4th century, whereas the Eternal City is in its 28th or 29th.
For its defenders, though, the current battle over St. Brigid’s church — built by Irish immigrants early in New York’s 3rd century, when it had just a fraction of the populations of London and Paris – is all about the layers of history.
For those opposed to them, the Catholic church can giveth and it can taketh away. The Pantheon, originally built as a temple to all the gods of Rome’s state religion and reconceived by the Emperor Hadrian as an ecumenical space for people who followed different belief systems, was saved from spoliation when it was converted into a Christian place of worship in the 7th century. (Its official name is the Church of Mary and all the Martyr Saints.) By the same logic, St. Brigid’s no longer adequately serves its intended function, so it must go.
In a long letter (June 14-20, 2006) to this newspaper defending the plans to demolish St. Brigid’s, Victor J. Papa argued that the archdiocese shouldn’t be expected to maintain “tired, old church buildings” and should not funnel money into “pre-20th century” structures? How would such an attitude go down in Rome? These days, not very well, I’m sure.
That defender of the archdiocese used the “either/or” argument so popular with politicians. For example, when Gov. Jim McGreevey slashed arts funding in New Jersey a few years ago, he suggested that health, education and welfare were low on his critics’ list of priorities. Likewise the archdiocese serves the poor, ergo anything that might tie up funds must be taking away from that endeavor.
That type of reasoning fails on several counts. First of all, pitting one area of spending against another, without reference to the whole, is hardly fair. In the case of the archdiocese, it may be cash-strapped, but it has a lot of property and assets generally. Why must St. Brigid’s, a structure that predates all of the city’s significant landmarks, fall victim to its cost-cutting exercises?
Second, it sets up a false dichotomy between essential and non-essential spending. The arts, museums and architecture don’t necessarily feed people but they are intimately related to the quality of life and to education, too. And this leads on to a third weakness in the argument: it ignores the archdiocese’s broader responsibilities to the city and its citizens.
Our letter-writer argued that all New York churches extant in the late 1840s were Famine churches, and that is, of course, true. But many Irish Americans have identified St. Brigid’s as important because of the precise circumstances of its construction and its location. People have said they are attracted to the church, which overlooks Tompkins Square Park, for its simple beauty. It certainly seems to stand in stark contrast to the brash, fast-moving, world-famous city that grew up around it. And there’s no better place to reflect on the almost 16 decades that have elapsed since the Famine, just as there is no better place to think about the course of human history over two millennia than inside and outside the Pantheon.
One idea that has been suggested by locals who want St. Brigid’s reopened as a parish church is to have it also used as an immigrant museum. Victor J. Papa poured particular scorn on this idea, which he identified with the “cocktail elite” — as if the princes of the church have never relied on the cocktail circuit when raising money for its programs.
Now, a museum may or may not be practical in that space, but the way in which the concept is so easily dismissed epitomizes how the archdiocese is missing what the first George Bush called the “vision thing.”
One would have thought that its officials would have jumped at the opportunity to tell the story of New York as a narrative of Catholic immigration and migration.
Just 15 minutes walk to the south of St. Brigid’s, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually to 97 Orchard St. Its visionary founder and president Ruth Abram came up with the concept of recounting the lives of real immigrant families who lived in that tenement building from the Civil War through the Great Depression.
A doctoral student in urban education, Lynda Kennedy, who once worked at the Orchard Street venue, told the Echo last year that museums were “extraordinary learning environments” for schoolchildren. She recalled how her late father, an Irish-born Philadelphia homicide detective, brought his children to museums and galleries to make up for the inadequacies of the education system.
The Tenement Museum’s next permanent exhibit, which is in the advanced stages of planning, will tell the story of an Irish immigrant family, the Moores, who lived in one its apartments in the 1870s.
Unfortunately, ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan departed the scene, we haven’t had any political or church leaders who understand, as Ruth Abram does, that a city’s heritage is to be found, at least partly, in its layers of bricks and mortar and the stories they reveal.