The first was by a speaker at a rally in Tompkins Square Park, which the church overlooks and will continue to now for generations to come. He was a veteran East Village radical who was campaigning as much against another high-rise being foisted upon the gentrifying neighborhood as for the preservation of a 157-year-old house of worship. The old school anarchist, who was on a roster of speakers with a parish priest from Manhattan’s west side, said that he’d begun to wonder whether indeed there wasn’t something to the faith that he’d witnessed in the St. Brigid’s parishioners leading the campaign.
It was a surprising statement. And if he wasn’t quite converting St. Paul-like on the spot, his words showed enormous respect for his fellow campaigners. He was commending their spirituality as much as their spirit. Of course there would be arguments and disagreement amongst St. Brigid’s advocates over the next three years. But, for the most part, the tone outwardly stayed remarkably upbeat and positive, as well as levelheaded.
The second comment was by a former parishioner who when listing the reasons for her involvement in the campaign mentioned the church’s “simple beauty.” Again this was something that went to the core of the matter. One aspect that has been overlooked is how much the parishioners and the locals generally loved or were even in love with St. Brigid’s. A Village Voice reader who taught for five years in the neighborhood wrote last week that St. Brigid’s was a “magical place” and that one got “an immediate sense of peace” when passing through its doors.
St. Brigid’s doesn’t have the elaborate esthetics or grandeur of some more famous places of worship (and what it does or did have suffered considerably at the hands of demolition crews). Rather it evokes what you’d find in a country village or small town, the sort of place that produced County Tipperary architect Patrick Keely and some of the others who helped build the church.
Many of the locals who loved St. Brigid’s had known little if anything about its connection to the Great Famine. It became apparent soon enough, though, that its Irish roots were at the crux of the matter and key to the church’s survival. And it turned out that Irish Americans wanted St. Brigid’s to survive. But most of the Irish had long left Manhattan (though, it needs to be said that many Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans were active on the campaign committee) and so it was hard to express and harness that support effectively.
This is why an event such as the “Bards for St. Brigid’s,” an extraordinary evening of readings by Irish and Irish-American writers held in June 2006, was so important. Some scoffed, saying these people hadn’t been passed the doors of a church in decades. Actually, it wasn’t true in many cases, but also it was beside the point.
Writers have always been well able to tell truth to institutional power. And the issue here was the ecological balance between progress and the respect for heritage. And if St. Brigid’s, built early in the New York story — generations before it made its claim to be the greatest city in the world — and built, too, at a traumatic time in Ireland’s history couldn’t be landmarked, then what precisely could be?
They say the Irish built New York. It’s something of a clich