“We are giving our support,” said Tom Gormley, president of the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies, entering the controversy over the 158-year-old East Village structure that the Catholic archdiocese has shuttered and marked for the wrecking ball.
Local parishioners and conservationists have been fighting a rearguard action in the courts over the past year to stop the proposed demolition of the church that was built for and by Famine immigrants.
“We’re losing our heritage, the Irish,” he said. “They’re chipping away at us.
“It’s part of our history. It’s time we took a stand and defended what we believe in,” said Gormley, a retired Westchester police sergeant. “We’re entitled to hold onto our own.”
He argued that the Famine church in the East Village goes to core of the Irish experience in America. And aside from its initial role giving shelter to immigrants fleeing starvation, it has many interesting footnotes in its long history. For example, he said, the Rev. Thomas I. Mooney, St. Brigid’s second pastor, was the first chaplain with the Fighting 69th, a regiment in which the former cop himself has served. It’s believed Mooney became involved with the famous unit through its Company C, also known as the Mechanic Guard, which was comprised of shipyard workers from St. Brigid’s parish. (The sculpted faces of some of the shipwrights who built the church in 1848-9 adorn its pillars, although locals believe archdiocese officials have removed almost everything of value from the building.)
Gormley added: “One of our members brought it up at a regular meeting and after a discussion we decided to support the cause.”
Campaigner Paul Dougherty said that the Save St. Brigid’s Committee was “very enthusiastic” about the Emeralds’ declaration of support. “It’s really lifted our spirits to hear that,” he added. “The Emerald societies are to the forefront of all things Irish, such as marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
“We can help with letter writing, negotiation and talking to politicians,” Gormley said.
Members of the Save St. Brigid’s Committee will sit down soon for further consultation with the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies, an umbrella organization with 30 affiliates.
Among the latter are several New York City Emerald societies – those for the firefighters, Board of Education, Con Edison, telephone, courts’, parks’, housing and sanitation employees and others — as well those for the police departments of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties. Each society is entitled to five delegates on the Grand Council.
While several prominent Irish-Americans writers have come together to support the preservation of St. Brigid’s, and will speak at a fundraiser next Thursday, this is the first endorsement by a significant mainstream grassroots organization.
The Emeralds’ stance might be seen as a measure of the general unhappiness about the way parishes are being closed down.
Gormley, though, said he’s cognizant of the church’s predicament. “I understand that the diocese is a business and like any business must be run as efficiently as possible,” he said. “But there are so many ways to cut back.”
The St. Brigid’s campaigners have impressed him as “upfront, dedicated people” and he believes, like them, that alternative development plans are viable.
The locals want St. Brigid’s, which overlooks Tomkins Square Park, restored as a working parish church, one that that could also be home to an immigrant museum.
“There’s no easy answer,” commented Dougherty about the church’s financial woes. “Any church closing is sad, but we’re claiming an historical pedigree.
“My understanding is that the regular court process will come to a head this month,” added Dougherty, an independent video editor who lives a few blocks from the threatened church. “There won’t be anything to talk about if it’s just a mound of rubble. It’s a case of speak now or forever hold your peace.
“Irish Americans have to search their souls: do we want to save this or do we want to say goodbye?” he said.
St. Brigid’s is believed to be the earliest church still standing associated with Patrick C. Keeley, the County Tipperary-born, Brooklyn-based architect who built an estimated 700 Catholic and Episcopalian houses of worship in North America from the 1840s through the 1890s.
And the Manhattan church was built by Irish labor at the most traumatic moment in Ireland’s history.
St. Brigid’s continued to be an Irish neighborhood church for more than 50 years; other immigrant groups, such as the Germans and the Italians, were predominant later. Then, Puerto Rican migrants came to the East Village and Lower East Side in the post-World War II era, and close-knit and devout multigenerational families from that community have been to the forefront in the current campaign.
But several Irish-Americans with deep roots in the neighborhood have also been involved in the effort. Dougherty’s grandfather was a product of the parish, as were his two great-uncles and a great-aunt from the same family who went into religious life. His brother was married in the church in 1997.
Dougherty said he’s met many prominent Irish Americans who were supportive privately of the St. Brigid’s cause but “are reticent to say it aloud.”
He’s hopeful that the Emeralds’ 11th hour intervention will change that.
The St. Brigid’s Benefit Reading by Irish and Irish-American writers will held on Thursday, June 15, at 7 p.m. at Connolly’s 45, 121 West 45th St., (between 6th and 7th Aves, 3rd Floor event room. Speakers include: T.J. English, Thomas Fleming, Pete Hamill, Thomas Kelly, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor and Peter Quinn. It will be hosted by Black 47 front man Larry Kirwan. For more details go to www.savestbrigid.com or call (212) 928-9995.